Why can separating from parents and carers be distressing for young children?
From around six months, most children begin to show distress when they are away from their primary caregivers. As they don’t yet have a separate sense of self, babies see their parents or carers as part of themselves and feel a part of them is missing when they are apart. Babies may not understand you will come back after leaving them. Babies and young children may also feel anxious around unfamiliar people, though this may reduce over time. As children feel less intense separation distress and their familiarity with their early childhood service increases, they tend to worry less. Older children have developed a separate sense of self and therefore have a greater understanding their parents or carers will return. Helping manage separation distress Children vary in their levels of emotional sensitivity.
Some children worry while others are more carefree. Most are somewhere in between. Parents and carers can work together with staff so their child has positive goodbyes and enjoys their time away from home (e.g., when a parent or carer reminds their child of the fun they have with their friends at child care). Children feel less distressed when they are confident that they will see their parents or carers again (e.g., when a parent or carer reassures their child that they will see them at the end of the day). When children are separating from their parents and carers they may behave in hard to manage ways (e.g., screaming, tantrums, or refusal). Understanding the meaning behind this behaviour and responding appropriately assists the child to manage their emotions and experience less distress (e.g., by speaking softly to the child about their feelings, stroking their hair and providing a comforting hug). Children copy their parents’ and carers’ emotions and behaviours.
Children may interpret adults’ anxiety or worry as indicating to them that their situation is unsafe and that they should be fearful too (e.g., ‘the world is a dangerous place and I am not capable to handle it on my own’). Adults can help children manage their separation distress and help them feel safe by being calm, relaxed and reassuring, noticing their child’s emotions and comforting them. A balance is required however. For adults, it is important to find the balance between supporting and reassuring children and allowing children to have opportunities to practise managing their own emotions. By being emotionally available and showing understanding about children’s fears, you help to manage children’s distress when it is too big for them to manage.
Children’s separation distress can be due to:
- The way the child thinks ‘I don’t feel safe without my Mum or Dad.’
- ‘Something bad will happen and I may never see them again.’
- How they cope with feeling afraid….
- ‘I am scared and I don’t know what to do.’
- Picking up on parents’ and carers’ cues….
- ‘Mummy looks worried and upset so there must be something wrong. Now I feel worried or scared too!
Adults can help reduce the child’s distress by:
- ’ Supporting your child to develop helpful thinking and remind them of what usually happens when you are away from each other.
- ‘You can trust me to make sure that you are safe.’
- ‘When I leave you, you are okay and I’ll come back for you.’
- ’ Giving your child some ways to cope when they are apart from you.
- ‘Here is a kiss for you to keep in your pocket until I come back.’
- ‘Here is a photo of us together to remind you that we will be together again soon.’
- ‘Let’s take some deep breaths to calm us down.
- Being calm and helping your child to be calm too.
- ‘Mummy seems happy and relaxed. Seems like everything is okay.
- 'I feel safe. There is nothing to worry about.’
Understanding children’s separation distress
When a child gets angry, upset or worried and their behaviour is hard to manage, try to think about what may be going on for the child. Some common experiences, possible explanations and suggestions are described below.
Some common experiences:
- Baby A has been happy at child care since he was six months old. At 10 months he started becoming upset when separating from his father in the mornings.
- Three-year-old R is screaming and clinging to her mother, not letting her go.
- Four-year-old J won’t get out of bed. ‘I have a tummy ache.’ He is usually very happy to go to Kindergarten. He has a new baby brother.
- Baby A is attached to his dad and has developed the capacity to remember and recognise familiar faces. He sees others as strangers.
- Three-year-old R has a close attachment to her mother. If her mother feels anxious and three-year-old R has picked up on this, she may feel scared and unsafe.
It is not unusual for children who have settled well in their early childhood service to experience distress in response to changes in their life.
Some suggestions to try:
- Baby A may feel less distressed if he has a special toy or blanket to help him feel connected to his dad when they are apart. Practise being calm. Talk with staff about your feelings.
- Think about transition times (e.g., find a special way to say goodbye to three-year-old R in the morning and reunite later in the day, and try to use this consistently).
- Talk with four-year-old J about how he is feeling and use this opportunity to remind him of his importance in his family.
- Perhaps four-year-old J could show his friends some photos of his new, bigger family.
Parents and carers have feelings too
Parents and carers can also feel upset and experience distress when they separate from their child, especially when their child is upset. Parents and carers can help manage their own emotions by:
- Calling the service about half an hour after leaving to see how their child is going.
- Asking questions about their child’s day, such as how they slept or what they enjoyed. Parents and carers can ask specific questions if they want more information or if they are feeling a little anxious themselves.
- Making sure you pay attention to your own emotions.
How does Kool Kidz approach settling a new child?
At Kool Kidz, educators:
- Encourage families to provide photos of Mummy, Daddy, siblings, grandparents and child to enable a sense of security in a new environment.
- Recommend parents bring the child’s favourite toy, book or pillow from home.
- Emphasise on relationship between child and Educator.
- Encourage a child’s interest in classroom activities to help settle him / her.
- Give a child time to decide to participate in activities or not till he/she feels settled in the new environment.
- Ensure families bid goodbye and reassure he child that Mummy or Daddy will come back at pick up time.
Contact Kool Kidz for more information!