Separation Anxiety in Kids Who Attend Daycare

September 20th, 2012 by admin

When a child first begins attending daycare, especially if she’s between the ages of eight and 18 months old, the transition can sometimes be a difficult one. During this period of development, healthy babies begin to gain a sense of selfhood, realizing that they are an entity separate from their primary caregiver. They’re also beginning to grasp the concept of object permanence, realizing that objects and people still exist, even when they’re not seen or heard. The confluence of these two milestones causes your child to understand for the first time that separation from you is possible, but the lack of a solid concept of time and a difficulty processing the fact that you will return can leave her in hysterics when she’s dropped off at daycare. This is almost always considered normal behavior by medical professionals and childcare providers, and this stage can extend into the toddler and preschool years without being an immediate cause for concern, especially among only children or those experiencing separation from a parent or primary caregiver for the first time. Determining whether your child’s separation anxiety is a regular part of development or an indicator of something more serious can be difficult, but there are some factors you should consider as you ponder the subject.

  • A Disruption in an Established Routine – Children are essentially creatures of habit, and they thrive on a routine. If that routine is suddenly disrupted by a parent’s return to the workforce or some other situation that stipulates a move to center-based care for a child that’s accustomed to remaining in the safety and familiarity of her home, difficulty adjusting to daycare may last longer than parents expect. Be patient with your child, especially those whose verbal skills aren’t quite strong enough to express their fears clearly.
  • Unfamiliar and Overwhelming Environment – The bright colors, loud noises, and constant sensory stimulation of daycare can seem like barely-controlled chaos to a young child, especially an only child who has previously been accustomed to a more placid environment. If your child is suffering from separation anxiety each morning when you drop her off at daycare, take a moment to consider the environment and compare it to that of your home. Jarring noises, shouts, and the exuberance of children that are still essentially strangers to your child, paired with the fact that she’s separated from everything that she recognizes and that feels familiar to her, could be a contributing factor to her reluctance to let you go each morning.
  • Peer Bullying – Bullying is a problem that many parents don’t begin to worry about until their children reach elementary school age, but it can be an issue amongst children as young as preschoolers. While your child may not know to call what she’s suffering from “bullying,” if she’s of preschool age or slightly older and seems to be fearful of attending daycare, it could be the result of teasing or bullying that she’s being subjected to there. Talking to her about what bullying is and asking her if she’s ever witnessed such behavior can help to open a dialogue on the subject, and may leave you with answers to many of your questions regarding her separation anxiety.
  • Caregiver Abuse – Before this subject is addressed, it’s important to understand that sustaining abuse from a childcare provider who is employed by a reputable daycare center is a very unlikely prospect for your child. However, if she exhibits symptoms of separation anxiety only when she’s being dropped off at daycare and mentions a particular worker by name in a negative manner, her motivations for feeling uncomfortable with this particular worker are worth exploring. If no evidence of abuse can be found but anxiety persists, changing daycare centers may be your best option.
  • Dramatic Changes at Home – The death of a loved one or the divorce of her parents can leave your child feeling more anxious than normal about the idea of being separated from her primary caregiver. If her difficulty dealing with separation coincides with a traumatic event at home, there’s a very strong possibility that her anxiety is a natural result of that trauma.

Discussing your child’s struggle with separation anxiety with her pediatrician, especially if it doesn’t seem to be improving with time, is the most effective way of obtaining both peace of mind and assistance in managing the issue. Establishing goodbye rituals, settling on a transitional object that helps her make it through the day, and keeping lines of communication open are all time-tested methods of helping children make the transition into daycare without hysteria. While the idea of sneaking away when your child is otherwise occupied can be tempting, it’s one that you should avoid. In most cases, it will ease the transition for you, but make it more difficult on her when she realizes that you’re gone and didn’t say goodbye. This can fuel worries that you’re never coming back, so make sure that when you drop her off you explain that you’re leaving, but you will return for her at the end of the day.

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