Separation Anxiety, Why Does My Child Cry When I Leave Them At School?

19/08/2015

Being a parent is very fulfilling and at times it can really try our patience; especially when you are starting your child in a new school or centre for the first time and they simply don’t want you to leave!  This is known as separation anxiety:  it is anxiety provoked in a young child by separation or the threat of separation from their mother or father.  But what is a NORMAL amount of separation anxiety?  How much anxiety is too much?  When does it move beyond separation anxiety into separation anxiety disorder?

 

To understand this more deeply, we take a look at some case studies in our own preschool and daycare in Petaling Jaya, near University Hospital, Jaya One and Jaya 33.

 

What is a Normal Amount of Separation Anxiety?

According to webmd.com, separation anxiety is normal in children aged eight (8) months to fourteen (14) months old especially when they are getting used to new places and environments.  This stage is characterized by clinginess, crying and even the odd tantrum or two.  Keep in mind that separation anxiety is not limited to infants and toddlers; it can also go up to children aged six and seven years old, though normally the level of severity has decreased by this point.

 

Separation anxiety is especially common when the child has rarely, if ever, left their parents.  For example, in the Little Human Scholars centre, we have had children join us who have never left their parents for more than a few hours at a time, and then they end up staying with us from early in the morning until about 6:30pm.  In cases like this, we have seen that the children experience separation anxiety for a couple weeks.  Some parents choose to hand over the children to the staff and leave as fast as possible to minimise the crying while others choose to come in and let their child get accustomed to the environment, and leave after they have settled down.

 

There are other children who are very independent and have no issue when their parents leave them.  They even wave goodbye to their parents on their first day of school!  The point is this:  each child is different and has different needs and techniques for dealing with new environments.  One key that can support you in acclimating your child to a new school or environment is to figure out what works best for you AND for them.

 

That being said, there are also children who may have been attending a school or centre for a few months at a time and even years, and still are a bit clingy to their parents, but this is not to be confused with separation anxiety.  Clinginess is normal in children; and with certain children there may be apprehension to change from one environment to another which is perfectly normal.  Separation anxiety is when a child really feels anxious and worried that the parent is leaving and can last five to ten minutes whereas clinginess doesn’t last and there is little to no anxiety the child feels as the parent leaves.  When they are dropped off, they may cry for a minute or two, but eventually find their place and start socialising and playing with the other children shortly after their parents leave.  This is also normal depending on the child.  As stated earlier each child is different.

 

 

How Much Is TOO Much Anxiety?

 

Too much separation anxiety is a bit different from the normal amount of separation anxiety that many children experience.  For one, the severity of the anxiety experienced is much more extreme.  In a separate article by webmd (which can be found here): A five-minute tantrum can seem like a million years to a parent. But kids who consistently have tantrums that last more than 25 minutes may have underlying problems.

 

Keep in mind that tantrums are a normal part of child behaviour, and separation anxiety can be found in children from eight (8) months old all the way to three (3) or four (4) years old and sometimes longer.  If a child has hardly left their parents and they are suddenly given a new schedule and curriculum, it is normal that they will resist it.  Once they have acclimated to the new schedule though, the separation anxiety they experienced before will begin to diminish.
It could also be that the child has had this behaviour reinforced by parents.  A parent may give a child whatever they want just to have them stop crying.  If a parent, teacher or grandparent does this consistently, the child learns that in order to get what they want they must cry and make a scene.  These sorts of episodes would be expected in children and would be quite common.  However, if the child is not used to being given whatever they want simply because they cry and they are demonstrating this behaviour over weeks and months, then professional attention should be sought as it could be a root to a deeper issue such as trauma.

 

Keep in mind that overprotective parents can also foster more separation anxiety in a child especially if that child already has anxiety leaving the parent.  Your child will tend to mirror your emotions.  When my daughter was about two years old we had an incident in our living room which has affected her to this day.  She was sitting and playing with her toys when along came a spider which sat down beside her.  Curiously she said to me, “Mommy look!  Spider!”  My unconscious reaction was to scream and yell for my partner to come and dispose of it.  Immediately after letting out a shriek, my daughter stood up and mimicked my behaviour.  She squealed as well, ran to me and grabbed my leg.  Moments earlier she was fine sitting next to the spider and after my emotional reaction she suddenly was terrified of them.  Luckily my partner came in, caught the little guy and let him out the back door, but the damage had been done.  Since that incident my daughter has been petrified of spiders and any bug for that matter.  My biggest distinction from this experience was that she mimics my emotions and will continue to do so for another few years.  This brings us to our next topic of discussion:  what you can do to ease your child’s separation anxiety.

 

What Can I Do To Ease My Child’s Separation Anxiety?

 

Separation anxiety can go both ways.  Keep in mind that your child will always mirror you; so if you are stressed leaving your child with a friend or family, or with dropping them at a new school they will hone in on those emotions and reflect them back to you just as my daughter did with my reaction to the spider.  Here are a few tips you can utilise when your child starts exhibiting separation anxiety:

 

Many parents believe their child is too young to understand what is happening and I assure you that this isn’t the case.  If you remind them daily that they are going to school or starting at a new daycare centre, eventually (if not immediately) they will understand what is going on.

 

  • Do not feed the fear.

It is normal for children to be afraid to leave you or vice versa, but you don’t have to fan the flames of fear by reacting or by reattaching yourself to them.    Sometimes the best thing is to simply say goodbye and walk away.  Other times it may be appropriate for you to say to them, “OK, mommy is going to stay for five more minutes and then I have to go.”  Which technique you use is up to you, but do your best not to react when your child is crying.  If they see you react negatively or with fear when they cry, they may think something is very wrong and may cry even more.

 

  • Perfect practice makes perfect!

If your child has never left you before and you are starting them out in a new playschool, preschool or daycare centre, start practicing leaving them for a few minutes every day (supervised of course).  Leave them with a friend or family member, tell them goodbye and walk out the door preferably where they cannot see you, wait a few minutes and then come back in.  Don’t over exaggerate the hellos or goodbyes; if you make it a big deal they will too.

 

  • Give them a comfort item to keep with them when you leave.

There is a little girl in the Little Human Scholars playschool who, though she has been with us for some time, insists on keeping her ‘hanky’ close by especially in the morning.  Her parents often drop her off shortly after waking her and her hanky is her little comfort item.  This helps her to wake up and adjust to the school setting.  After about 15 to 20 minutes, she puts her hanky in her bag and goes about the day effortlessly.  If your child is experiencing separation anxiety, it may be good to give them a comfort item to support them in adjusting to their new settings, or to simply support them in feeling comfortable.

 

  • Reinforce wanted behaviour as opposed to unwanted behaviour.

This key has really supported our preschool, playschool and daycare centre.  As stated before if we simply give a child what they want when they cry, we are unconsciously telling them to cry whenever they want something and they will surely receive it.  If your child cries when you start to leave and you come back to hold them, ask yourself what behaviour are you reinforcing in your child.  For example, if you would like your child to be more independent, try rewarding independence, bravery and trying new things.  You can do this by clapping or applauding their curiousity.

 

In short, separation anxiety is natural and even normal.  Before children are able to communicate the most effective method of communication for them was to cry to get your attention.  And keep in mind that, up until the point of daycare or school, they have relied solely on you and your family for their survival.  It is natural for them to resist change.  But you can ease them into change with a little bit of time and effort.  After a while they will be used to the new schedule and will adapt accordingly!

Wishing you endless happy parenting experiences!

Jana Moreno

Teach Your Child To Talk Early