At around six months, babies will start to become anxious when their parent or primary caregiver leaves them. They’ll also get quite clingy and cry. This is a normal part of development, which children usually grow out of when they reach around three.
When a child starts to experience separation anxiety it’s a sign that they have begun to realises how much they rely on their carer. They will also have developed more awareness about what is going on around them. All this means they feel less safe when they don’t have their carer close by. They may also feel upset in new situations or with new people, even if their carer is there. For a baby, it’s particularly frightening to lose sight of their caregiver. Babies can panic that people or things may have gone for good, if they aren’t able to see them.
When a toddler is separated from a parent or carer, it can feel to them as though they have been ‘left’. They might think, “If you really loved me you would never leave me!” But the fact is that most toddlers will experience being separated from their parent or carer at certain times, and although they can find these times upsetting, the toddlers will learn to cope with them. If parents and carers can focus on consistently ensuring their child feels loved and understood, they’ll learn that when they are left it will be OK, and that their carer will come back.
Levels of separation anxiety vary widely. Some toddlers may become upset initially when their parent or carer leaves, but are then able to enjoy playing with their toys, and other children and caregivers. But others might not be able to be settled so easily when the caregiver has gone, and comforting or distracting methods don’t work on them.
In some situations, the fear of separation can become so intense that the child spends all their time monitoring where their parent or caregiver is, and not letting them out of their sight for a moment. In these cases, it’s very possible that the child won’t enjoy playing and interacting when the parent is gone. Usually, these responses to separation will lessen with time.
- Advising and reassuring parents and carers who are leaving their child at the setting for the first time
Suggest that parents prepare for, and manage their own feelings
Encourage parents and caregivers to think about any forthcoming significant separation before it takes place. It can be useful for them to get in touch with their own feelings, and think about how they may be expressing these feelings in their behaviour. Children are very sensitive to how parents are feeling!
Acknowledge their feelings as valid
It is important to acknowledge with a parent and caregiver that it can feel pretty scary for them to leave their child. It can be helpful to talk to them about any strong feelings that may be brought up for them by the separation. It may be that they are feeling upset, guilty, relieved or worried.
Remind them that the process isn’t likely harm their child
Reassure parents and caregivers that, while a child can feel distress when being separated this feeling does not necessarily cause them harm, and that their child is learning important lessons that will allow them to become more independent.
Encourage a positive ‘Goodbye’
Encourage parents to be positive and decisive when saying goodbye to their children. It’s important for parents to tell children that they are leaving, and to do so confidently and in an upbeat way. This will boost children’s confidence (even if not at first!) that it is safe to be left, and that their parent will return.
- Attending to a child after the parent or carer has left
If, after the parent or carer has left, you think the child might be missing them you could talk to them about what is happening, and how they may be feeling. For instance you could say: “Are you missing your mum? She’s gone shopping. After that she will come back. Shall we look at a picture of her and you together here on my phone? There she is. That’s your mum, she’ll be back soon”.
While doing this you could leave conversational gaps in between questions and use exaggerated facial expressions to show them that you understand where they are coming from, and are interested in their feelings.
- Top tips to share with parents and carers
- Avoid overnight separations until the child is older where possible, and also avoid leaving your baby when they’re tired or ill – for they will need you at these times.
- Engage your baby in games that help them learn that people do not ‘disappear’ when they go out of sight and that you will come back even if you go away. These games could include playing peek-a-boo, and hide-and-seek.
- Practice short separations from your baby to begin with – leave them for a few minutes with someone they are comfortable with. Gradually work towards longer separations and leaving them in less familiar settings.
- Before the separation help your child become familiar with the new places they will be in, and the people they will be with. Similarly, help the substitute caregiver become familiar with your child – such as what they like and don’t like, any specific worries and fears, and their daily routine.
- Tell the child what is going to be happening at least a few days before it takes place, using simple and straightforward language, with a confident and factual tone of voice. Give the child room to ask questions, and to protest!
- Tell the child what they’ll be doing while they are apart from you. Talk about what you are going to do when you see them again, so they can look forward to it. Reassure the child that you’ll be thinking about them, and that the child can think about you while you’re apart. Even for younger children who can’t speak, they may understand a simple explanation, and will understand a reassuring, loving tone of voice
- Leave your child with a little reminder of you e.g. a photo, a little toy that they can keep with them.
- Try to make ‘saying goodbye’ a positive time. Don’t sneak away, but make sure to say goodbye and tell them that you’re leaving. Even if you are feeling sad or worried, if you can smile and say goodbye confidently, your child will feel more confident.
- Give your child a big hug to greet them when you return. But don’t be concerned if they don’t greet you joyfully, they may be angry or avoiding looking at you. This is normal and try not to take offence. In fact, this is a good sign as it means they are confident enough in their relationship with you to let you know you that they are not happy. Tell them how happy you are to be back together, and how you missed them when you were apart.
- Impact of the health crisis
The health crisis is impacting different families in different ways. Some children may be spending much more time with their carers, which may make separating more difficult when they go back to nursery. Some children may find themselves separated from certain people they are close to, such as a family member or their keyworker, for extended periods of time. It may be difficult for young children to understand why they can’t see their family members, or staff or friends from nursery. And it can be more difficult to reassure children if carers are anxious about these separations themselves.