Children Separation Anxiety

Every parent has experienced the phenomenon of separation anxiety in children. It is a normal behaviour that is part of child’s development seen mostly in babies and toddlers. It can most often be seen in babies from 8 months to about 2 years old. It is often triggered with a new childcare situation, a new sibling or moving to a new place.

For children it would be normal to feel this way, to cry and be distressed to the new changes as they are separated from who they trust. A child may even feel anxiety next door from the parents’ bedroom while tucked in the bed.

For a child who is younger than 8 months it is easier to adapt to new caregivers. It is about 8 months to 1 year that a child is more aware of the surroundings, recognises faces and exhibits stranger anxiety. It is also about 8 months that a child only begins to understand the concept of object permanence. This is when babies are not able to see an object in front of them that they think it has disappeared or is completely gone and could not just be somewhere else. It is therefore important to allow the child to understand this concept and to feel secure about not being let alone. At this stage children also begin to understand the input and control they have in their environment.

In the Montessori classrooms, activities such as drop boxes with drawers in which a child may drop a ball and observe as it disappears from sight and can be found once more hidden in a drawer, allow this concept to be understood. While this is a normal phenomenon, it is a concern since it can also be unsettling for parents by triggering feelings of guilt and confusion. As the child takes on this new role of awareness and impact to the surroundings, he slowly begins to experiment with the adult and daily routine of the adults.

The child attempts to avoid separation by becoming teary eyed as the parent attempts to leave the child with the carer, testing the boundaries that are set. As with everything, the parents need to be firm with the boundaries that they set with their children. A child understands that crying affects the adults when they leave and will use this strategy to avoid separation.

What can parents do to help a child to feel secure about being left alone? Strategies include minimising the separation as much as possible, taking the baby along if possible and waiting for the child to outgrow this phase of development. If a child has to be left without parents, leave him with a relative or someone familiar. This can allow for separation to be easier. Yet if a child is to be left in childcare and the carers are strangers, try to let the child become familiar with the carers gradually in preparation for the new situation. Allow for and give time to the child to become comfortable. This can be done by letting the child become accustomed to the new surroundings and carers.

The parent may drop off a child earlier in the centre or allow a babysitter to come in earlier to allow the child to interact with the carer before the parent has to leave. Let the child be fearful but show him that it is okay. Also always say goodbye to your child, and give a cuddle or a kiss and tell him you will be back. The goodbyes though should not be prolonged and should be light. The baby is also aware of your feelings of difficulty of letting go. Try not to let the child see you cry (if you do so) and most often the child will stop crying as soon as you are a few steps out of the doorway. Once you have left do not come back and forth as it will reinforce using crying as a strategy to keep you there. Repeated trips will make it harder for both of you and the carer.

If difficulty is still observed re-evaluate the goodbye pattern. If the parent makes a big deal of the separation the child senses it and also becomes distressed. A quick goodbye may make the child feel confident that you will be back. A parent’s body language may also send a message to the child that he can always come back and therefore hinder exploring the environment and getting comfortable with the surrounding and the carer. A child may start exploring his surroundings but the parent sends a message to come back to him/her and the child may do just exactly that. It also requires awareness from the parents.

Another form of separation anxiety is night time separation anxiety. This can be dealt with by spending some extra time reading a bed time story or a cuddle time with the child. If the child cries in his sleep, do comfort him but do not stay until he falls asleep. It will be hard initially, but your child will be more likely to be able to fall asleep on his own.

As Montessori believed “Some children are of such retiring nature that their psychic energies are too weak to resist the influence of the adult. Instead they attach themselves to an older person who tends to substitute his own activity for theirs and they thus become extremely dependent upon him. Their lack of vital energy, although they are not aware of it themselves make them prone to tears. They complain about everything; and since they have the air of one who is suffering, they are thought to be sensitive and affectionate.

They are always bored, though they do not realise it, and they have recourse to others, that is, to adults, because they cannot themselves escape the boredom that oppresses them. They cling to another as if their very life depended upon it. They ask adult for help. They want him to play with them, to tell them stories, to sing to them and never leave them. An adult becomes a slave to such children. Even though child and adult have a deep understanding and affection for one another, they are ensnared in the same net.”

It is quite common, though hard to admit, that it is harder for the adult to separate from the child than for the child to separate from the adult. (Lillard) This also has to be realised so as to know how the separation can be dealt with. It is hard for a parent to let go of a child who is slowly gaining independence while until recently was very dependent on the parent. It is important to allow the child to realise these feelings of separation and overcome them. A parent may be able to do a lot to help the child by making him feel comfortable, familiar with the carer. A child needs to learn the concept that physical presence is not the only way to feel trust and feeling of oneness with the loved one. This is a concept that is important for both, parent and child to grasp.

If separation anxiety is properly dealt with, it helps pave the way for the acceptance attachments and separations as a natural process. It is a process that enhances security in life. Based on attachment theory by John Bowlby, attachment is the sense of being loved and being part of the world. When a child feels secure he is then not focused on his internal emotional needs and turns the attention to the external world and allows exploration and work. It is then through this work and exploration that a child learns and creates himself.

To be able to deal with separation anxiety it may be difficult for the child, parent and carers but it must be dealt with and the suggested strategies may be used to ultimately help the behavioural development of the child.

References: Lillard, P.P and Jessen, L.L. Montessori from the Start Schocken Books, New York. 2003.

Observation Guidelines:

  1. The Montessori materials presented are those that can be found on the communication board.
  2. Fine motor skills to watch out for are: reflexive grasp, sweeping arm movements, wrist movement, primitive pincer, palmar grasp, true pincer, how many finger grasps, intentional release, thumb and index opposition, small pincer grasps, pointing, etc.
  3. Gross motor skills to watch out for are: turning, sitting up, pulling up, scooting, crawling, standing and walking (on wide base or stable)

10 Comments on Children Separation Anxiety

  1. my 2 1/2 yo daughter is going to a local montessori school in indonesia. she’s been going for about 3 weeks now. when i drop her off, she would take my hands and ask me to accompany her inside to the classroom. if i leave her to the teachers there, she would rebel and cry out loud. so here’s what i told the teachers i want to do… let me keep my daughter company in the classroom until she’s settled in, or distracted with the toys, i would then say my goodbye to her, then i will leave her. but the school won’t let me, they rather force her off me, causing her to cry out loud, and told me to sneak out without saying goodbye. my problem with that is, i want my daughter to feel appreciated and respected. i kind of make that a habit at home; we talk to her, listen to her, give her choices to choose, and we always say goodbye whenever we’re leaving her. all these so she would feel confident about herself. so the school’s method of forcing her off me, seems like a good way to shatter her confident, and i hate that she has to cry in front of these teachers and classmates every morning on school days. wouldnt that embarrass her and could impact her self esteem in the long run? is the school’s method the correct method, or are they just montessori in name only?

    • Hi Ian,
      We have a similar issue with our son, the teachers just grab him from my arms and do not allow me to stay with him, so he cries a lot …. he’s there just for 1 week and we feel very guilty because he’s coming from a non-montessori care where he really enjoyed the mornings there.
      How have you passed that out ?

  2. My 1 yr.old daughter has been separated from me almost 2 mos.when. when she saw me she cried really hard and didn’t want anything to do with me, she is with my mom and my mom told me she never acts like that, the next day she did the same thing with me, now we are settled into our new home and ready for her to come back to me what do I do?

  3. It has just been 2 days. Give him time maybe after a month he will fully settle in. He will have to learn the routine. If it distresses you and him it might be a good idea to let him have shorter days in the beginning until all – including you have settled into the routine. If you feel comfortable at the centre and feel like they are taking care of him well then the centre is suited for your family. It seems like if they give him one on one attention he stops crying and this may be what is needed for now. Give the carers time to be able to do their work as well though it is hard when he cries but it is expected. It is a sign of good attachment to you and also that he is able to form relationships.

    I believe it will get better. He will eventually enjoy being in daycare.

    Daily Montessori

  4. My 2 &1/2 year old has just started at day care. This week was only his second day, and a half day as his grandma picked him up after lunch.
    Both times he has become very distressed when i say good bye, clinging to me and pleading that i stay or he go home. I have left him in tears so was feeling distress myself.
    I am concerned as his crying continued for most of the time he was there, he did not play or interact with the other children, didn’t eat morning tea or lunch and didn’t toilet there. I was told that he stopped crying only when one of the teachers was with him talking to him.
    Is all this normal and when should I expect him to settle there? Also wondering at what point I would know that this particular centre just doesn’t suit him?

  5. Hi!

    Yep she just misses you and using the time that you are there to act up just for you! I know it is not good to threaten her that you will go away when you are there. but maybe let her know when you will be home or not and try to make a routine with her if work allows it so that she will know when you are home or not. explain to her as well that she should still go to sleep early even if you are at home. Maybe do something special with her like read her a special bedtime story for her to go to sleep on time. Reassure her that you will be there in the morning to say goodbye or you will spend time with her during the weekends. Try calling her from work sometimes, it may ease her missing you a bit.

    I really do not know how she may react or if it will help. She does just miss you doing whatever to spend more time with you. Can’t really blame her, but maybe she just needs assurance that you will spend time with her appropriately.

    Hope it helps.

    Daily Montessori

  6. My 3yr old Daughter seems to have more anxiety when I’m home! She’s fine when dropping her off at Daycare, but at home she clings to me as much as possible! I work a lot so I’m thinking she is trying to make sure I’m not going anywhere. My 15 yr old son can put her to bed just fine when I work late and she will usually sleep all night. If I’m home, she doesn’t want to go to sleep and when she finally does it’s 12:00am! Then she gets up screaming for me in the middle if the night! Maybe because she knows I’m here? I’m at a loss! Help!

  7. Sometimes it can take a lot lot longer than you expected. Books and websites can inform you that if you try this technique you’ll be fine, but ultimately, your the parent, and you know what works best.
    It may help being with your child for some time, even 15 minutes, and then step away (or into other room). This will give them time to adjust. Maybe its the anxiety- in which case, use a timetable.

  8. Hi there. I am a mother of two boys aged 13 and 12 and I can understand how you are thinking. I would suggest that the parents need to arrange to go out more regularly but only for short periods of time to get the child used to it. Its no good for children to try and rule and be in control. They are the ones that need the rules and control. Make it so its fun for her. Mum and Dad are going out now but when we get back we will do something together.

  9. My grand-daughter(6) throws a fit if her parents leave her for just a little while. I think she’s at the point where she like’s control of her parents. She want’s to go everywhere with them. I tried to explain to her that Mom & Dad need time alone or with their friends too.
    She has no problem playing with her friends and leaving them.
    Like I said I think she likes the control already she has over them. She has a sister (4) and she will go anywhere; but then again the other one doesn’t want her sister to go anywhere tries her best to talk her out of it. She keeps asking her ( Don’t you miss Mommy & Daddy) tries her best to get her crying. I asked her if she cries when she’s in school and she said no. Raising my 3 kids I didn’t let them tell us what we can or can- not do.
    I just hate seeing kids today controlling their parents. Think there will be problems later down the road. Then it’s too late to change things.
    What do you think?
    Thanks for listening….

    Nana of 4 &1/2

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