Understanding Separation Anxiety – Julie Dotsch

It is important for children to form firm attachments with their parents; however, a child’s ability to gradually separate from their parent is an important milestone. When the separation is handled well, it builds the child’s confidence, helps them with future separations, assists them in forming trusting relationships and builds trust between the parent and child.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

Most young children experience separation anxiety when first in care, but when separations are done gradually, the anxiety will be lessened. Symptoms of anxiety for gradual separation include crying, clinging, inability to play and loss of appetite. When separations are done too quickly, the symptoms are heightened (e.g., flailing, rigid posture, inability to speak in any language, screaming, vomiting, turning blue from lack of breathing). A negative separation experience is very harmful for children, not only at that moment but for the rest of their lives.

Key Principles for Successful Separations

  • Gradual separation is critical – full separation may take several weeks.
  • Involving the family in the separation process will make it more successful.
  • Having a consistent caregiver to carry out separations reduces anxiety.
  • Educators and parents should watch children’s cues for readiness.
  • Educators need to plan for separation anxiety and take the time to help children settle.
  • Each child is unique and the ways to settle them will vary.

Involving Families in the Separation

When educators and families work together, separation anxiety is much reduced. The family can understand and support the separation process, can provide much-needed information about the child to help settle them and can prepare the child at home. Parents who work with educators are also less likely to give confusing messages, to sneak out or to berate the child for feeling anxious. Families also feel valued and respected and children pick up on these positive feelings. Educators and families should work together to make a simple plan for dealing with separation, such as the one given below.

Separation Schedule

  1. Parent visits the program during registration and learns about gradual separation.
  2. Parent helps prepare the child at home for separations.
  3. Parent comes to the centre on the first day and sits down with the child to play.
  4. As the child feels comfortable, the educator plays with the parent and child.
  5. As the child is ready, the parent stays sitting but becomes less engaged in play while the educator becomes more involved.
  6. When the child begins to allow short periods of play without parental involvement, the parent moves their chair back a bit to allow more play with the educator.
  7. Finally the parent is able to stay sitting near a wall where the child can find them.
  8. When the child can play for at least five minutes without looking for their parent, they are ready for the first separation. At an agreed-upon time, the parent tells the child in their home language that they are going (to the washroom) and will be back soon. They leave the child’s comfort toy and their photo and leave quickly and positively.
  9. The parent does not return for ten minutes. However, if the child’s symptoms are extreme (e.g., cries but no sound comes out, vomiting) the parent should return immediately.
  10. If the first separation was fairly successful, a second separation can be tried that day after the parent has been back in the room for at least 30 minutes. If the child was unable to engage in play after the parent’s return and clings or refuses to be let down, then no further separation should be tried that day.
  11. Depending on the child’s reaction, further separations can be planned gradually.

Handling Separation Issues

Children arrive in the program with vastly different experiences with separation. Some have had traumatic experiences that will make separation more challenging and the transition period longer. Generally, younger children (from 6 to 18 months of age) and children who have had little experience with the new language or with strangers will react most strongly. Each family also reacts differently. Many parents are hesitant and tearful. Some may bring their child to the program irregularly because of their reluctance to go through the emotional turmoil. Others may be embarrassed by their child’s reaction. Still others may try to sneak out, pressure their child to “behave” or be very reluctant to stay, thinking this makes things worse. Educators will need to be calm, professional but very insistent about the importance of a gradual separation.

Another factor can be an adult ESL teacher who pressures the parent to leave their child and come to class. Talk with the teacher about the reason for the gradual separation and the traumatic impact of poorly handled separations. They may be able to mark the parent present if they are in the preschool and can pass on any handouts for the parent on work they missed. Preschool educators can engage the parent in talk and share children’s books to help the parent learn English while they are helping their child manage the separation.

Regression at home and in the program is also common for children during separation periods. This may include soiling or wetting their pants, loss of the use of their first language, difficulty sleeping, refusal to eat, extra clinging or following the parent around at home. At other times, children may seem to have a fairly easy separation and then have a delayed reaction. Whatever the case, families and educators need to be patient through the separation period.

Be Good to Yourself

Going through separations can be difficult, not only for the child but for the parent and educator. It is important not to interpret children’s reactions as a personal rejection or as a sign that you are doing something wrong. Make sure you are getting enough sleep, that you are consistent with the child, that you handle one separation at a time and that you are bringing empathy and patience to the situation. Also make sure also to allow the child to gradually wean away from your care. The child may want to be held all the time, but your goal is gradual independence. If you feel discouraged, remember other children who are still in the program who used to be anxious and are now confident.


Julie Dotsch is an ECE Diversity consultant for her company One World. She is well known in the community for her interactive workshops and her specialized knowledge of immigrant preschoolers and their families. Julie can be contacted at oneworld@sympatico.ca.