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Separation Anxiety

Have you ever walked in to a room full of people who are already engaged and felt immediate panic? Unfamiliar places filled with unfamiliar people and unfamiliar expectations are awkward for many of us, and young children are no exception. Those of us who work with kids know that separation anxiety takes many forms and can vary in intensity. From a single tear to a full-blown meltdown, some little guys just struggle with saying "goodbye" to mom or dad. Have no fear, though, because there are a few tried-and-true methods which can help ease the tension for kids, parents, and care givers alike:

1. Remember routine is your friend- Set up a morning order of business on both ends of drop off can be your best tool.

Teachers/Caregivers: Make sure your classroom is ready to welcome wary children- have nice, calm music playing and set out age-appropriate, engaging activities.

Parents: Put your children to bed on time the night before, and wake up at the same time in the morning. Have a morning routine (ex: first we eat breakfast, then we brush our teeth, then we get dressed, then we read a story, then it's time to get in the car) and stick to it. Kids (and grownups!) who know what to expect are able to behave better. Also, make sure you're regularly bringing your child at the same time and not skipping days while they are getting adjusted, or it'll be like starting over each time.

2. 1-2-3 Go!- Once a child arrives at school/church/child care, the faster the goodbyes, the better. Though it feels counterintuitive to a parent, the longer they linger, the harder the transition for everyone.

Teachers/Caregivers: Be waiting nearby when children arrive. Gently encourage parents to say a quick goodbye, and then assure them that you will contact them if their child needs them. Give them a tip of where they can stand outside the room to spy covertly, if possible.

Parents: On your way there, remind your child that you are going to walk to class with your child, help them put their things away and wash their hands, and then you are going to give them a 1-2-3 (hug-goodbye-kiss) and then you are going to go. It's important that you stick to this, even if they cry. Teachers will affirm this- the longer you stay, the longer your child cries after you go. A quick goodbye helps with a quick recovery.

3. Keep it positive!- When adults watch their words, tone, and body language, children follow suit. Sometimes, the grownups in the room don't realize they're giving mixed signals.

Teachers/Caregivers: This means you have a great attitude when your students arrive. Make sure you're genuinely glad they are here (if you're not feeling it- pray!), and then use positive words which convey that the children will have the best time. "Oh, I have been WAITING for you to come all day! I want to show you this cool thing you are going to do today!"

Parents: For you, this means you will need to watch what you say to others (remember, your children are listening) about your child's teacher, your feelings about leaving them, or your worries about if your child will EVER make it. Also, be careful to avoid saying things which will make your child think there's something to worry about. For example, "Don't be scared, mommy will be back soon." Implies it's scary at church/school. Instead, "I just know you are going to have so much fun today! I can't wait to hear all about it when I come get you!" helps set your child up for success

4. Don't give up!- For many children, this can be a long process. With a little stick-to-itivity, you will find that even the most stubborn child will eventually want to join his/her classmates and have fun.

Teachers/Caregivers: Encourage your students' parents. Let them know when it's getting better. Try various things before you call a parent (but if you promised to call- you need to follow through on your word! We're establishing trust here!), and get a few tricks up your sleeve. (We'll cover some of my favorite tricks in an upcoming article!)

Parents: Depending on how often your child attends, it could take anywhere from a few days to a few months. They key is not to quit. If you keep it up, your child will learn an amazing thing- you always come back! If you say "Well, she doesn't like when I leave, so I'll skip church/work today," you are pretty much ensuring that this process is going to take a lot longer. Prepare yourself for the long haul: the reward is right around the corner!

5. Celebrate the win!- Make sure to celebrate even the little steps- the first time the child only cries instead of screams, the first time s/he chooses a toy to play with instead of lingers by the window, the first "No tears morning!"- give the child a sticker and the adults a high five! Know that sometimes separation anxiety will re-rear its ugly head when you least expect it. However, you now have some good tools and a victory in your pocket, so you'll be able to nip it quickly and easily.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Galatians 6:9

If you have any questions about easing separation anxiety or would like to learn more, you can email me at

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