It’s that time of the year again when little ones have started school for the first time, or are transitioning to new schools and grades. This is often a difficult period of adjustment, causing anxious moments for both children and their parents.
Children transition through various periods of separation anxiety (or anxious moments) during their development. The first period usually happens between 8 and 14 months when they realise they are beings separate from their parents and the parents leave without them at times. There is then another peak around toddler-hood (20-24 months) when they develop a strong sense of attachment to the parent and a desire to have some control over their own lives. There can be periods during stress inducing life phases such as starting school, the arrival of a new sibling, moving house, and serious illness where separation anxiety reappears. The important thing to remember is that this is a normal part of development and signals an emotional milestone.
What is separation anxiety: It is the normal reaction of a securely attached child to a fear of losing its parent/primary caregiver. Bear in mind that your child’s brain is still developing. In particular, rational functions only develop fully in your early 20’s. Your little one therefore needs constant reminding and reassurance that your departure is only temporary. The best way to help your child transition through these periods is to instil a sense of trust by letting them know what is going to happen and then stick to what you say.
Transitioning steps at the time of separation
- Let your child know that it is ok to experience the feelings they have, and allow them to express them before the time of separation and offer comfort. Say things like: “It’s ok to be nervous or sad. You are going to do some fun things at school and then I’ll be back to fetch you”.
- If you are the one dropping your child off, then where at all possible be the one that collects as well. This helps with reinforcing that you do return when you leave.
- Develop a good-bye routine. Kisses, hugs or high fives – something that is special to the two of you. Keep it short and show confidence in your actions. Once you have said your good-bye leave.
- Give them a return time they will understand. E.g. after story time or after lunch.
- Don’t sneak out – say good-bye.
- Don’t be late. If something comes up, have the caregiver communicate that to them.
Transitioning steps ‘behind the scenes’
- In the beginning try to facilitate bonding with the new caregiver by speaking favourably of him/her and the new environment.
- Where possible start with short separations.
- Leave them with a comfort object if they have one, and explain its role to the new caregiver.
- Spend some time before the separation letting them know what is going to happen, what they will be doing, and what you will be doing while you are gone. If possible try to plan something special for the two of you to do on your return, and let them know what that is.
Most importantly keep in mind that all children are different and unique, and therefore need to be treated as individuals. What works for one does not necessarily work for all. The transition period should last for about 2 weeks. If you are concerned about your child’s transition or need some assistance in developing ideas, a consultation with a therapist can help to facilitate these needs.