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When you have a baby, it may be hard to imagine being away from them, even for a few minutes as you let your friends and family steal some cuddles. But as they approach the 6-month mark, it becomes more likely you will have to leave them. Whether you are returning to work or just need some time to run errands alone, your child will now be spending many hours with a caregiver or in a preschool program. Unfortunately, it is not long after this age when separation anxiety kicks in. At around 8 months, your baby starts to understand that you are leaving. The problem is, they typically don’t understand that you are coming back!

How to Cope with Separation Anxiety (by Age)

Separation anxiety doesn’t just affect your child. It’s likely you have to recover from the handover just as much or more than they do. Luckily, children have a shorter memory span than we do. Once they calm down, they’re able to (believe it or not) function well without you until the end of the day or period of time that you’re gone. The hardest part is letting go of each other and allowing the caregiver or teacher to console your child as you leave.

Here are some quick tips to help ease separation anxiety for your child:

Babies

At this age, separation anxiety can be very difficult. Since your baby cannot yet verbally communicate with you, their response will come in the form of crying – many times whaling – as you walk away. It’s a good idea to start practicing with a caregiver at an early age before you have to leave them at school all day. Let them get used to being with someone other than you and ease them into the transition. When you do have to say goodbye, it will be up to you to display confidence (even if you are falling apart inside!)

Keep it short, but be intentional. Instead of sneaking off, give your baby a big hug and a smile, say goodbye and walk away. Sneaking off is a form of trickery and can interfere with your child’s ability to put all their trust in you. Your baby’s caregiver or teacher will be able to redirect their attention with a toy or music easily after you leave. Don’t be tempted to prolong your baby’s anxiety by allowing their cry to bring you back. More often than not, the crying will stop almost instantaneously once you are out of sight.   

Toddlers

Once your baby gets through their period of separation anxiety it can be shocking when it returns as a toddler. Or maybe your toddler is experiencing this type of anxiety for the very first time. Either way, toddlers do sometimes go through separation anxiety and you’ll want to know how to help them with their transition.

Toddlers do very well with routines and knowing what to expect. Again, be intentional with your goodbye. Develop a goodbye ritual such as a high five or a meaningful phrase. Give them a responsibility of their own to make the transition easier such as hanging up their jacket when they enter the room.

Finally, let them know you will be back and set an expectation for when. Toddlers can’t tell time yet but they understand events. For instance, let them know you will be back after naptime and they will be better able to cope with you being gone until then.

Preschoolers

Although not as common, sometimes preschoolers experience separation anxiety, too. This often happens when their surroundings or circumstances are unfamiliar such as a new school or new teacher. It typically only lasts a few weeks, but there are some ways you can help your child cope.

Let them know it’s okay to be nervous, but you have confidence that they will get through it. Plan some extra time to spend with your child one-on-one to reassure them of your love and ease their anxiety. Keep their routine solid otherwise. Make sure that they go to bed on time and don’t skip routine tasks like reading before bed. This will show your child that even though they are experiencing something out of the ordinary, there is still order in their little world.

Beyond Preschool

School-age children are usually have outgrown separation anxiety but there may be times when they are apprehensive about going to school. If this happens, talk to your child and find out if there is something else going on at school that makes them feel unsafe or anxious. Your child may be experiencing bullying by a peer or they could be feeling inadequate about an assignment and not sure how to approach the teacher. Continue to be intentional and proactive with your child so that they can learn to cope with unfamiliar situations in healthy ways.  

Your School’s Role in Coping with Separation Anxiety

It’s important to recognize that even though you and your child are the ones experiencing the transition, you are not alone in helping them cope with separation anxiety. Your caregiver or school can help too.

At the Lighthouse School, our teachers are all very familiar with the impact that leaving your child for the first time can have on you both. We will work with you to ensure that the transition is as smooth as possible and your child is happy and well-adjusted upon departure.

If you have been putting off enrolling your baby in a preschool program due to separation anxiety, we would love to chat with you about your concerns. Contact us to learn more about how the preschool experience can help your child adjust to being away from you during the day.