Saying Goodbye - Separation Anxiety

As parents, we all know that feeling - the nervous anxiety we can feel in those early days of saying goodbye to our child and leaving them in the care of someone else. It’s not made any easier when our child may also be having big feelings in response to our departure.

By Erin Maloney, General Manager of PORSE Education & Training

During periods of separation, children need to know their new environment is secure and can be trusted. This trust is fostered through relationships, having their needs met sensitively and consistently and being shown genuine affection and attention.

Seperation Anxiety Image

What is separation anxiety?

The age and stage of a child will play a part in how a child responds to separation, however, it’s important to know that separation anxiety is a completely normal part of childhood due to the attachment relationship that develops between a child and their
key caregiver(s). Separation anxiety can manifest as clinginess, distress and withdrawal. Typically, it begins from about six months of age, appears again around 15 to 18 months of age, and sometimes when a child is three. In between these times, you may see separation anxiety when a child begins a new relationship with an unfamiliar adult (such as an in-home educator) or when they have experienced significant changes in their lives like moving house.

So what can we do to help?

Children rely on us to support their transitions, to help them to manage their big feelings and to take care of their emotional needs. This isn’t always easy, especially with young children who aren’t yet able to tell us what these needs are. Here are some ideas that can help: 

Ease them into it.

A gentle transition into new care arrangements will help a child to feel more comfortable. This could involve the parent remaining for periods of time over the first few weeks of care to support the child to build familiarity with their new environment and relationships with their new care provider. 

Talk to them about it.

Empathising with a child and supporting them with words helps them understand their feelings and feel heard and understood.

Acknowledge the emotion – then redirect or distract.

Always let children know you get how they are feeling (“I can see how sad you are that Mummy had to go to work”), before you find something else for them to become interested in. Our brains can’t be upset and curious at the same time so helping a child to focus on something else does really help at times of distress.

Connect with them.

When transitioning into a new care arrangement, a child will feel more comfort and build more familiarity when this is with one primary caregiver who genuinely likes them and has time and patience while their relationship develops. Having this one-on-one nurturing relationship will help feelings of security and trust to grow.

Build a routine.

Help your child to build a pattern of expectation around separation with a predictable leaving routine - like reading one story before you go. Children find routines comforting so find one that works for you and your relationship.

Allow home comforts.

Encourage children to take their own familiar or special possessions with them into care – a favourite cuddly, book or toy. Sometimes something that reminds them
of the parent they are saying goodbye to, can help them to know the parent will return.

If you are the new person providing care, don’t forget the parents.

Remember parents also need emotional support when leaving their child. Communication is key here – a text message to let them know their child has
settled, photos and detailed accounts of their child’s day will all help to support parents with their own feelings around leaving their child.