Advice and Tips

Separation Anxiety

This is the anxiety that some children face when they are away from their primary carer. This is usually the mother but it may occur when parted from a Nanny or regular minder.

Understanding the problem

Experts agree that, in many ways, it is a totally reasonable reaction for a child to object to being left with someone with whom he or she is not particularly familiar or comfortable. However, a child might simply object because he or she would prefer to be with you and may not, as yet, be articulate enough to voice this emotion in anything other than a histrionic wail. It's a normal, understandable response and there may not be any cause for concern at all.

Separation Anxiety

Dr Mandy Bryon, a clinical psychologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital said in an interview last year with The Times, 'Parents might feel tears indicate a problem at nursery, or that a child feels unhappy there, when usually the opposite is the case - the tears are just for you. It is perfectly natural for your child to protest and say how can you leave me, then be comforted and enjoy their day.' The same applies if you experience tears on collection - they do not mean that your child has been wretched all day - but just an emotional response tied up with the relief of seeing you and/or the exhaustion of coping with the day. A quick chat with the minder or teacher should be enough to put your mind at rest.



Tackling the problem

But what about cases that are a bit more extreme, or which do indicate that there might be something more deep-rooted going on? The advice to parents appears to be to start being alert to problems at a very early age - and pre-empt them by putting into practice some precautionary measures:

1. It is a good idea to try and introduce other carers into the mix at around the age of 6-9 months, the age at which babies first start to get a sense of the 'otherness' of strangers. Even if all you do is to leave your child for half an hour with another family member, it helps to establish confidence in the experience and, most importantly, trust in your return. If other children are around as well, so much the better as early interaction with other infants, however limited, will form the basis of good social skills in future.

2. Another flashpoint is around the age of two to two and a half, when nursery generally starts. Even if your child seems hyper-confident, arrange to go in beforehand and look around together and generally spend some time in the nursery environment. Talk about what is likely to happen, how much fun it will be, what time you will be coming back and how you will go home for tea/bath/bed together. When the time comes to start for real, stay for 15 minutes on the first day, gradually reducing the length of time you spend there before you leave. The same would apply in the case of starting with a childminder, or when there is to be a change of childminders. In both cases, you can expect the settling-in process to last anything up to about two weeks. If your child persists in being reluctant to go in, recruit the help of the teacher or childminder to make the handover as calm as possible. But, on leaving, if you hear crying persisting, resist the temptation to go back inside and reassure your child. Hard as it is to do this, it is far better for the child in the longer term. If you need reassuring yourself, wait within earshot until the sobs have subsided. That way at least you will feel slightly better about walking away. Alternatively, phone in half an hour later to check things have settled down.

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