Tuesday Morning, 7:06am.  Mom is in the kitchen packing up everyone’s lunch while the baby tosses cheerios on the floor.  Dad is upstairs fighting with the preschooler about getting dressed.   Every morning is a struggle, the same struggle.  The family is already late, and both parents know the preschooler is about to throw a giant tantrum when it’s time to leave for daycare.  She does this every morning.  Sometimes she screams the entire way to daycare.  Once they get there she clings to Dad.  Most days a daycare staff has to peel her out of Dad’s arms, crying and screaming loud enough to be heard through the entire building.  When they come to pick her up in the afternoon, the staff always say she calmed down right away and had a great day with her friends, but Mom and Dad know there will be another fight tomorrow morning.

Does this situation sound familiar?  Does your child struggle when it comes time to say goodbye to Mom or Dad?  You may be dealing with a very common challenge for a lot of families:  Separation Anxiety; a feeling of loss and worry felt by children under the age of 5 (and older kids too) whenever a parent or trusted adult leaves.  The child may become overcome with emotions at even the prospect of going to daycare or school, as they associate it with the – temporary – loss of the parent.

In a 2-5 year old child, Separation Anxiety can look like not wanting to leave the house in the morning, screaming and crying in the car, big tantrums at school or daycare, refusing to let go of a parent.

Basically, your child loves you, and trusts you.  They miss you when you’re away.  School and Daycare can be a bit scary and overwhelming sometimes.  They may worry that you’re not coming back, or that you’ll be gone a long time.

I see Separation Anxiety in action all the time as an Early Childhood Educator and Childcare Provider.  I’ve spent years watching broken hearted parents say goodbye to their tearful children each morning.  It’s hard for everyone involved but I can say with honesty that children usually calm down quickly, especially if there is a fun or comforting activity for them to look forward to like their favourite toy, craft activity or snack.  Separation Anxiety is most common after a prolonged absence from school or daycare.  Think about those first days back to daycare after family vacations, summer or christmas break or even being home sick for a few days; some children are hesitant or nervous about leaving their parent after being together for so long.  

For some context, I’m writing this in June 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  I live in Ottawa, Ontario and as of today (July 2, 2020), my area is slowly emerging from 3 months of quarantine.  I operate a home daycare, which has been closed for 13 weeks.  During that time, my husband was laid off and we spent a lot of time together as a family.  My 4 year old – like many 4 year olds – idolizes his Daddy.  Follows him around, makes up fantastical adventures for him and Dad, tells stories about when they were little boys together.  The Mom in me is thrilled that my boy has such a strong connection with his Daddy.  The Early Childhood Educator is a bit worried for the day Daddy has to go back to work.

Many families in Canada – and around the world – are preparing to go back to work after being quarantined or ordered to stay home to flatten the curve.  As a childcare provider, I know this will be a big challenge for many children.  My goal with this guide is to help parents get ahead of the challenge a little, to help you feel prepared before the first day back to daycare.

Quick Guide to Separation Anxiety

Now that we’ve established that Separation Anxiety is normal part of life for little kids, here are some practical things you can do now, to help manage your child’s separation anxiety:

Talk to your child about it when they are calm and happy.  Try to carve out some time for a quiet activity like colouring, puzzles or reading books.  Sit with your child and casually mention how fun daycare is.  Ask them about their favourite things at daycare.  Who is their best friend at daycare?  Which teacher makes them feel safe?  Where do they like to play the most?  

From there, you can start to gently narrate their emotions around Separation Anxiety.  Phrases like:

  • It’s ok to feel sad or nervous about going back to daycare
  • Mommy and Daddy will miss you too.
  • I feel sad when you’re not around too.
  • Your friends and teachers will so happy to see you.
  • You’re going to have so much fun playing with all the toys!
  • Tonight when we get home we’ll do something awesome together!
  • I Love You, I Love You, I Love You.

It’s also a good idea to read storybooks that are targeted to the issue of Separation Anxiety.  Anything that deals with school, daycare, or parents leaving.  Point out how the main character is acting and feeling.  My personal favourite stories for this topic are “Llama Llama Misses Mama” by Anna Dewdney and “The Kissing Hand” by Aubrey Penn.  Both books follow main characters that feel sad or worried about leaving their mothers, and *spoilers* both stories end with the main character feeling better about going to school.

That’s all fine and good, but you’re probably wondering, what ‘should’ you do when you get to daycare and the cries of “please don’t go” start.  How do you calm a screaming 3 year old who refuses to let go of you?

Find a quiet spot and sit with your child, hold them in your arms, hug them and keep repeating positive things.  Keep your sentences short when the child is in the throes of a tantrum.  Say things like:  “I love you”, “Daddy will be back after your nap this afternoon”, “I love you”, “You are safe here”, “I love you”, “Your teachers can help you when you feel sad”.  “I LOVE YOU AND I WILL BE BACK LATER”.

Name their emotions.  Validate them. Calm Down.  Engage.

Name their emotions:  You’re scared and sad because Mommy and Daddy have to go.  

Validate them: It’s ok to feel sad.  I miss you too when I’m at work. We will be back later to pick you up. Mommy and Daddy love you.

Calm Down:  Let’s take some deep breaths.  Let me give you a hug. Mommy and Daddy love you.  You are safe at school / daycare. 

Engage:  Let’s go say hello to your teachers, and find something fun for you to play with. 

In my opinion, when it comes to kids having tantrums, empathy wins every time.  Dealing with a screaming child when you’re just trying to get to work on time is really hard, I get it.  Some days, we’re at the end of our ropes and you just want to say “Stop Crying.  You’re Fine”.  That harshness and frustration doesn’t help anyone in the end.  At the heart of your child’s tantrum is a heavy feeling of sadness and anxiety, because they love you and they miss you when you’re not around.  You know that they’ll be fine before you’ve even left the parking lot, but they feel sad and nervous that you’ll be gone a very long time.

When your child is in the middle of a giant meltdown – for whatever reason – remember this: Your child isn’t doing this to you.  It’s happening to them, and they don’t know how to deal with it.

Again, as an Early Childhood Educator I’ve spent years being the person you hand your screaming child off to, so I have some insight on what happens when the classroom door closes behind you.  Usually the meltdown gets more intense right after the parent leaves, but most children can be comforted or coaxed into an activity that they enjoy.

The best thing you can do for your child when they’re feeling nervous about going to school or daycare, is to be empathetic.  Ask them about their emotions, and listen when they tell you how they’re feeling.  Keep reminding them that they are loved and you’ll be back at the end of the day.  I’m a big fan of the show Daniel Tiger (and my 4 year old loves it too), for it’s vast library of helpful songs for young kids.  When it comes to Separation Anxiety, Daniel Tiger – Grownups Come Back (Episode 103) is particularly relevant.  

 

Daniel is nervous about going to school, and leaving Dad.  in the episode they sing “Grownups come back they do, grownups come back for you.  Grownups Come Back”.  I use this little verse often with my daycare children.  We’ll sit on the couch and snuggle for a little while, and I’ll quietly sing “Grownups Come Back”, to validate and comfort them when they feel sad or nervous.  It usually works, and when they’re calm I often offer a snack or book before moving onto the next activity.  In my experience, once we get into the usual routine of daycare life, the child is happy to be with their friends in a familiar environment.  If they’re not, we just keep snuggling until they feel ready to explore on their own.  

Sometimes it takes time but eventually kids understand that it’s ok to play and have fun at daycare, even though they miss their mum and dad.  As parents, the best thing we can do is keep reminding our children that their emotions matter, and they are loved.  

 

Empathy wins, every time.

 

Do you have more questions about Separation Anxiety in little kids?  Are you still stumped after trying these tips? Write to me!  Reach out to littlelighthousehomedaycare@gmail.com with your questions, frustrations or worries.  I’ve been working with children for over 15 years, I’ve seen it all and I love helping parents navigate the stormy waters of childhood.  Raising children in 2020 isn’t easy, and it’s ok to ask for help!