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How To Handle Separation Anxiety In Your Toddler After Lockdown

Sophie Pickles

Written by Sophie Pickles

9 min read

The pandemic may have affected your child's separation anxiety. Here's what to do.

A mother saying goodbye to the child

As I write, I have just returned home from what has now become an increasingly difficult daily occurrence for our family: the nursery drop off. Complete with a crying and desperate toddler clinging at my legs for reassurance and begging me not to leave, it’s a less-than-perfect start to the day for all of us.

With childcare settings reopening and furloughs finishing, our children are flying out of the nest and into the arms of others once more. For many parents though, myself included, the transition back into childcare has been fraught with anxiety and tears - ours and our children’s.

This morning’s parting featured a new twist - a last minute sprint across the playground to the gates of freedom (and the main road), the nursery teacher chasing close behind and a saviour of a dad who impressively managed to use himself as a human shield to stop my son reaching the promised land outside nursery, while also managing to keep a socially-acceptable distance away.

I cried on the way home.

Closed gates of a nursery school

What is separation anxiety?

If this sounds all too familiar and your goodbyes are met with tantrums, tears or even physical aggression, your child may also be suffering with separation anxiety. As scary and upsetting as it is, separation anxiety is actually an incredibly common and normal stage of your child’s development.

"As children begin walking, they assert their independence and move away from their parents. But they're not ready to fully separate," explains psychotherapist Fran Walfish, author of ‘The Self-Aware Parent’.

For young babies, separation can be incredibly scary as they cannot yet fully understand the idea of object permanence - the idea that something still exists even when you can’t see it. So when you walk out of that room, drop them off at nursery or leave them with Grandma, they believe that you are gone for good.

It is only at around 8 months old that little ones begin to understand that you still exist outside of their field of vision and by the toddler years, children are able to fully grasp this concept. This doesn’t always equal plain sailing however, as many toddlers will feel upset or even indignant, that you are going to carry on without them. Wherever you are going - they want to come too.

This is compounded by the fact that toddlers have little concept of the meaning of time, so telling them you will be back in an hour will do little to assuage their fears. Their natural instinct tells them to stay close to their primary caregiver at all times.

When does it start - and end?!

A child having a tantrum in the playground

Separation anxiety often begins when babies start to realise that they exist as a separate entity to you - their beloved parent. Although it commonly begins between 7 and 10 months, “the timing of separation anxiety can vary” explains paediatric psychologist, Jennifer Pendley. “Some kids might go through it later, between 18 months and 2½ years of age. Some never experience it.”

How long separation anxiety lasts will differ for every child. While the NHS (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/anxiety-in-children/), say that the worry will dissipate for most children at around age 2 to 3, it can be known to last from infancy into the primary school years. The way in which parents and caregivers respond to such anxiety, state the NHS, is the key to helping children overcome their fears.

For Jenn Scrivener, mum to Amber, now aged 3, the battle with separation anxiety has been apparent since she was just 10 months old. “[Amber] has had periods every 2-4 months since then. She’s had it for the longest, and most consistently, since [the start of the pandemic].”

Could the pandemic affect your child's separation anxiety?

This much is clear: the pandemic has had a dramatic effect on how our toddlers feel about spending time apart from us.

Jenn believes that life in lockdown has had an unquestionable effect on how her daughter Amber is coping with the transition back to routine childcare. “She would be much happier spending all her time with us than with anyone else”, Jenn worries. “She doesn’t understand why she can’t just stay with us all the time.”

In a recent survey conducted by Save the Children, it was found that the lockdown has had a worrying impact on children’s wellbeing, with skyrocketing mental health issues which could continue to affect them as they return to schools and nurseries.

Children chatting with each other during a nursery drop off

“While children are resilient, we cannot underestimate the impact the pandemic is having on their mental wellbeing and overall health. [They] are suffering enormous upheaval on a scale that we have not seen in this lifetime. There have been many sudden changes to their lives and so much is yet unknown about the long-term impacts of this crisis, which requires us to be vigilant and do everything possible to limit the impact on young minds”, reveals Marie Dahl, Head of Save the Children’s Mental Health & Psychosocial Support Unit.

Claire Gibbon, a teacher in West Yorkshire and mum to Dylan, aged 3, shares the fact that she and her husband now have to wear masks during drop-off time. “The entrance to the nursery is in the train station, so we have to wear masks when we are saying goodbye. We can’t go into the cloakroom, so we have to leave him at the door.”

Helpful strategies to use with your anxious toddler

A child crying hanging onto the mother (not wanting to leave)

The statistics may be concerning and the situation less than ideal, but there are plenty of ways that you can help your anxious toddler begin to overcome their separation anxiety:

1. Acknowledge their feelings. Toddlers want to be heard and it is our job to listen to, and validate their fears. Tell your toddler that it is ok to feel worried or sad and give them the time and cuddles that they need from you. If you need to make a quick getaway because of a busy commute, it may be a good idea to arrive at the childcare setting slightly earlier than normal so that they don’t feel rushed.

2. Explain exactly how and when events are going to happen. While toddlers can’t fully understand the concept of time, they do understand routine and sequential events. If you explain their day to them, they will feel a greater sense of control over what is happening. For example: “First you are going to play inside. Then you will have a story. After the story it will be lunchtime. You will eat your lunch with your friends and then I will be there to pick you up!”Father saying goodbye to his toddler at a nurserySarah Ockwell-Smith, author of ‘Gentle Parenting’ highlights that “it is important to realise that [children’s] feelings are very real and valid, and to acknowledge, rather than try to silence them. Only then is it possible to move on to the ultimate goal – that of a truly happy child and a happy parent whilst using childcare.”

3. Talk to the Key Person. If your child is in a nursery setting, they will be assigned a ‘key person’. This is the staff member that holds overall responsibility for your child’s wellbeing and development during nursery hours. Talk to the nursery and try to make sure that your child’s key person is always there to greet you in the morning.

Talk to your child’s key person about their interests and needs and share any useful pieces of information about your home life. You may also like to ask if you can take a picture of the key person home with you so that you can refer to them and talk about them with your child.

Claire Gibbon agrees that forming a strong bond with a key person has been an essential step towards a happier child: “Dylan found leaving us in the morning unimaginably hard. He eventually formed a close attachment to a key worker at nursery, so drop offs were easier when she was there.

A child crying at the school gates or walking with mother

4. Don’t drop and run. Many parents and child carers used to believe that the best strategy for dealing with teary eyed children at the start of the nursery day was to make a quick exit while they weren’t looking. As someone that has been on both sides of the parent-teacher fence, I can tell you with complete certainty that this doesn't work.

Toddlers and preschoolers respond well to open communication and honesty. While it may be a difficult conversation to have, telling your child that you are going to leave and giving them a kiss and a hug is a much better tactic than sneaking out the back door. Children are much less likely to be upset, or will at least be upset for a much shorter time, if they understand what is going on.

5. Let go of the ‘mum guilt’. Walking away while your toddler sobs and screams is horrendous and it can easily make you feel like a terrible parent if you let it. It’s easier said than done, but we need to try and remember that our toddlers will be able to survive without us, especially when in the care of loving professionals or grandparents.

6. Consider alternatives. This may be a last resort for many parents but it is worth thinking about whether your childcare arrangements can be adjusted in any way. If your toddler just can’t settle in a nursery setting, finding a childminder or nanny may be a positive solution. Switching full days for half days may also make a big difference, especially if you are able to work more flexibly.

There is no quick fix for separation anxiety and it is unfortunate that the current global climate is undoubtedly magnifying existing issues or creating new ones. Implementing these steps and keeping open communication, are the key to ultimately eliminating your toddler’s separation anxiety for good.

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