Dr Martine Prunty
Separation & Anxiety
Updated: Sep 29, 2021
It’s that time of the year again, a time for transition, progression or change of some kind. You might have little ones who are starting daycare for the first time, toddlers changing rooms or new carers looking after your children. This is a common time for tears in all the rooms and it can leave parents feeling guilty about having to leave their kids and worried about how long they will be distressed. Yes, this month we are talking about separation anxiety.
Firstly, let me reassure you. It is developmentally normal and appropriate for children to want to stay close to their parents. It’s a survival instinct after all. That said, the intensity of this normal anxiety varies, depending on your child’s own temperament. If I were to be technical, which I will for a moment, this behaviour is not separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is much more intense, pervasive and excessive. It occurs not just when separation occurs, but when it is merely anticipated. It happens across many environments, not just at daycare drop off. It affects being able to go to sleep and, in extreme cases, can bring on physical complaints such as headaches, stomach aches or vomiting.
I hope this definition brings you some relief and the realization that what most of your children are experiencing, is not really separation anxiety. They are not feeling threatened or unsafe. They just love you and would prefer to spend the day with you than with someone else. Young children don’t have the words to be able to communicate that, so they cry. Most children calm down within half an hour of you leaving, and realize that daycare is actually great fun and they are in very caring hands.
So, given that this behaviour is normal, appropriate, and reflects back to you that your children have formed healthy and secure attachments with you, it would be unrealistic to expect that there is something magical that you can do to stop it. What you can do is always make sure you prepare your child for what is going to happen. Give them plenty of notice and a good idea of what to expect. Explain the process and tell them that you always come back to pick them up. As hard as it is, try not to stay too long in the room; it seems to reassure them that you’re going to stay with them and then the goodbye is often worse. Finally, don’t let them see that you are upset. Children often interpret this to mean that you don’t think they can cope, which obviously is not the message you want them to receive.
So, how long does this usually last? Unfortunately, there is no specific time frame, that’s the beauty (or frustration) of human nature. The tearful goodbyes can last for varying degrees of time. Some lucky parents won’t experience it at all. For some though, it can last much longer. My eldest son who is now 6, cried for 3 years. THREE YEARS. Yet he LOVED daycare. He told me so himself. He just didn’t like the bit where you say goodbye. I wish he could have articulated that to me at 20 months.
So keep doing the best that you can do to manage the demands of working families, understand that it’s normal for your little ones to get upset and have faith that your children’s educators will form secure relationships with them soon enough.