Tips for Managing your Child’s Separation Distress

Dr Kaylene Henderson
Child Psychiatrist

It can be so hard leaving a child in a distressed state in childcare. And harder still when we don’t know how best to respond.

If you have a little one who becomes upset when you have to leave her in childcare, it’s important to speak with your child and your child’s educator to ensure that there are no serious causes for concern (such as bullying).

If it seems that the issue relates simply to being away from you, here are some tips that might help:

1. Ensure that your child connects with their teacher:

Some parents think that a worried or upset child needs to be engaged in an activity when left in the care of others. More importantly though, is a child’s need to connect and feel safe with a new person. Speak with your child’s teacher about the approach you’re planning to take and ask the teacher to assist you by taking a consistent, comforting approach to managing these separations.

2. Acknowledge your child’s distress:

All of us feel better when we feel understood. You can help your child to feel understood by getting down to her level, mirroring your child’s facial expressing and saying, “I know you’re feeling sad. I understand that you want me to stay with you. I have to go in a moment but I know that you’ll be safe here with your teacher. You can stick with her/him until you’re feeling better and I’ll be back this afternoon.”

3. Make sure you leave your child with her teacher:

If your child is still feeling upset when you have to leave, you can say to her, “Let’s go and find your teacher and let her/him know that you’re feeling sad.”

Then, you can let the teacher know together that your child is feeling upset that you have to leave and will need to stay with her teacher until she is feeling better.

Your child’s teacher can then reinforce the same consistent message by saying to your child, “I understand that you’re feeling sad but you’re safe with me and I’ll be your grown-up for the day. Let’s stick together until you’re feeling better.”

4. Say good-bye:

“I’ll be back at pick-up time and we’ll have a big cuddle then. I love you.” As you say this to your child, it’s important to keep your own emotions in check. If she senses that you’re stressed about leaving her, this can make your child more worried about what might happen. Once you’ve left, don’t keep returning as this will be confusing and perhaps more upsetting for your child. Instead, trust that your child’s teacher will pick up where you’ve left off, providing comfort for as long as it’s needed.

If your child is met with a consistent nurturing response from you both, then she will more quickly feel safe with her new teacher and more confident in her new environment.

5. Discussion at home:

At home, speak with your child about your goodbyes and, if your child is old enough, seek her ideas about how these goodbyes might be made easier.

6. Practise through play:

Often children really benefit from practising these separations in their play. Simply let your child know that you really want to help her feel better in these situations and that you think it would help if the two of you practised your goodbyes, including what you will say to each other. You might also want to set up some little play characters to allow your child to gain further practise in her play. When children practise challenging situations through play, they can develop a sense of mastery more quickly.

7. Transitional objects:

Finally, it may help to give your child some sort of transitional object of yours, such as one of your necklaces to wear under her clothing with one of your kisses on it. It can stay over your child’s chest and remain with your little one all day.

Dr. Kaylene Henderson is a medically trained Child Psychiatrist and one of Australian’s leading parenting experts. She is also a mother of three zany young children.

Kaylene shares her practical tips for parents on TV, radio, print media and with her engaged social media community. Visit ‘A Dose of Awesomeness’ to download her popular online advice packs on a range of topics including anxiety, behaviour, meltdowns, school readiness and more. Together, we can help our kids to become more calm, kind and resilient…what could be more awesome?

*For simplicity, children are referred to using feminine pronouns (‘she’/‘her’) in this article, although the information equally applies to boys.

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