Separation Anxiety: Tips, Tricks, and Comforting Words

Drop off can be a difficult time for both caregivers and infants. As our school looks forward to reopening after our closure due to COVID, we reflected that while transitions to school can be tricky, there are strategies to help ease anxiety. Amanda Rhine, Brandi Gordon, Lida Barthol, and Julia Plant (pictured above respectively), educators in SEEC’s infant classes, shared their tips and tricks for both families and students transitioning back into the classroom. 

What advice would you give to parents to navigate drop off?  

BG: I would say, make the child a part of the conversation. Even if they are young you can communicate with them about where you’re going to go, who you’re going to see, and what you see as you go. Make it a part of the daily adventure so it’s not a scary quiet walk into the school building, especially at the beginning. You, as the grown up, can even talk about your own anxieties by saying “I am nervous to drop you off, it’s our first day. I’m going to miss you, but I’m going to come back.”  

LB: I agree with you, Brandi 

AR: I think also being gentle with yourself as the adult in this situation. Yeah, you might be anxious, and that’s an okay thing to feel and that’s to be expected. Especially with everyone being home for so long with COVID-19, to hand your child off to someone else is a very scary thing and it’s okay to feel that. It’s okay to give yourself grace with that moment and say, “We’ve been through a lot this year, there’s just a lot of emotions happening,” and that’s an okay thing to feel. 

LB: Yeah, I agree. And don’t feel like you should feel one way or another. Maybe on the flip side, you’re thinking, “Thank God someone is taking my child” and you feel guilty for feeling that way but that’s okay! Just have some loving compassion for yourself.  

JP: And related to that, having compassion for your child. They might feel totally different from you, they might feel different one day and to remember that this is a process so they might suddenly hit a stage when a couple weeks in they feel really sad to leave you. It might finally hit them, which is totally normal and we’re here to work through that with them and provide reassurance.  

LB: Having a definitive goodbye routine can also be helpful.  

JP: Yes. Once you have a routine, it’s important to keep it up. Although it might be difficult, it could actually be easier for your child if you don’t pick them back up from the teacher once you’ve said goodbye, even if in the moment you might want to do that to comfort them.  

LB: Absolutely, I realize that intuitively, it might seem easier if you could walk them into school and stay for a while but creating a set routine makes that transition easier in the long run. That’s not to say we’re all “Rip the Band-Aid Off” kinds of people. 

BG: Whatever type of goodbye that the families want/where goodbyes happen, we’re here to facilitate that. I think the key thing is consistency. However that goodbye happens for that particular family, is great as long as it happens that way every time. And to remember that your family’s goodbye might not look like another family’s goodbye and that’s okay! We’re not going to judge your goodbye routine. 

AR: I think that’s a great point Brandi. Goodbyes aren’t going to look the same for everyone. What your kid needs is what your kid needs. We’re here to meet your child where they are and to meet you where you are as a family.  

What else do you want parents to know about the transition back to school? 

JP: It can be helpful for even the youngest of children to have some information about the upcoming transition. Given this, we’ve discussed sending our pictures home to families so they can get to know our faces before returning to school. We’ve also discussed sending a schedule of a typical day. Being able to say to the child “We’ve seen Miss Brandi and Miss Amanda’s pictures and we’re going to meet them today. I’m really excited to meet them, too! First you’re going to have snack and then you’ll do this, etc.” It’s really reassuring to the caregiver but also to the child once they get into that routine. Knowing that they do this, this and this, and then their family comes back.  

LB: We definitely want to give the families some context for what happens after they are dropped off with us. Like, we take them inside, wash their hands, handle their feelings, and then the rest of the day looks like this. We also have a Shutterfly page going, which we update periodically, so families can see what their child does during the day.  

AR: Talking about that routine and schedule with your child is a great way to work through some of that anxiety.  

LB: Yes! Even with the little tiny babies, talking about the schedule and the routine is so important. I don’t think people realize that they can and should talk to their infant about everything that’s happening. They might not understand the words, but they do understand it on some level. 

JP: You definitely notice that babies pick up on their schedules. In the past, if a caregiver was running later than normal, we’ve all seen one of the babies notice and look around like “Why am I still here? I always leave before we transfer to afternoon snack time.” They know their schedule once they get into that routine.  

AR: Part of narrating the day, whether it’s getting ready to leave the house or whatever, is so important to their development and their understanding how of the world functions. And Lida, you’re right, they might not understand every word, but they do have some understanding of what is happening and what order it’s happening it. It’s exactly what we do in our classroom. Every time we change a diaper, or do anything, we narrate that experience. “Okay, we’re going to put you on the changing table. We’re going to take off your pants or onesie. We’re going to put you in this clean diaper.” Everything we do, we’re narrating all the time. It gives the child a sense of control and understanding because at some point they begin to understand the words and can begin to clearly voice their opinions.  

What does separation anxiety look like for children?  

LB: Young children, specifically infants, are going through object permanence. They are learning that when you leave and you’re gone for a few hours, you can return, and you still exist. I had a mentor once who’s thing was neurobiology and attachment theory. She was like, “Separating from your caregiver that first time is technically a little bit of a relational trauma. But because it’s trauma that’s why we have to be therapeutic.” And that’s why it’s our job to be a warm, welcoming, consistent caregiver, to be therapeutic for the baby.  

BG: It’s good to note that we understand what this does and that we’re here to support and be there for your child.  

LB: With every kind of rupture, there is repair. It is a stress, there is not denying that it is a stressful event for the baby, but they are fully capable of moving through it and being resilient. It’s not going to do permanent damage.  

AR: It’s also worth mentioning that children pick up on stress from others. How other children are feeling around them, how adults are feeling around them. We’ve all seen it in the classroom. If you as the adult are feeling as calm as you can and emanating energy that the new faces your child is encountering are warm, safe people then your child is going to pick up on that as well. There might be some initial tears but there will be a quick turnaround of, “Okay, I’m safe here. I know that these people are taking care of me. I can feel that it is calm and cozy so I am okay.”  

LB: Exactly! Babies need co-regulators for their emotions during their early stages, so our emotions are so important to their emotional wellbeing. But as we mentioned earlier, your child’s emotions and anxiety might vary day to day and that’s totally normal!  

Will it affect them developmentally? 

AR:  No! Separation anxiety is developmentally appropriate, and it won’t affect your child in the long run.  We realize that this year especially, separation anxiety might look a little different with our youngest students because their immediate caregivers might be the only people they’ve had any long-term exposure to. It’s now been one year with just primary caregivers and so separation anxiety might be heightened and that’s to be expected, but it does not mean that it will be detrimental to their long-term development. Building bonds with new people does take time, but SEEC educators move at the pace of the child and meet them where they are emotionally. 

How do you handle separation anxiety as teachers? 

LB: We’ve talked about it a little bit already, but really being a therapeutic, calming center for the child. 

BG: Being that calming sound board for the child to have whatever feelings they want to have.  

LB: Yes, I’m never going to tell a child that their emotions are wrong. I would never tell a child to stop crying, instead I would say “I know it’s really sad when your grown-up has to leave. It’s really hard to leave your favorite person.”  

AR: We all firmly believe as infant teachers that your child’s feelings and emotions are valid. It’s our job to help them navigate this first year of school and all the changes that come with it. We’re also here to help families navigate how they’re feeling. We’re here for all emotions, adult and child!