Helping Children Overcome Daycare Separation Anxiety

Overcoming daycare separation anxiety can be a trying experience for both children and their parents, leading to tears and stress for everyone involved. Helping your child to manage fear of the unknown and separation from a parent isn’t impossible, and is a necessary step along the road of eventually becoming an independent, productive adult.

Understanding Daycare Separation Anxiety

When a child begins attending daycare, especially between the ages of twelve and eighteen months old, they’re reaching a confluence of two major developmental milestones. They’re beginning to gain a sense of self-hood, and are learning the concept of object permanence. This means your child is beginning to understand that objects and people still exist, even when they’re out of view, and also that they’re a separate entity from their primary caregiver. These two realizations can come together to cause separation anxiety. While this is a painful and upsetting time for you and your child, it’s also a sign he or she is reaching crucial developmental milestones. This natural, normal separation anxiety can last well into the toddler and preschool years without being an immediate cause for concern among medical and developmental professionals.

Children thrive when there is a dependable routine, which is immediately disrupted during a transition to daycare. Difficulty adjusting to daycare can also be exacerbated in pre-verbal children, or those who lack the vocabulary to express their fears clearly. Because their fears aren’t expressed in a way parents can understand, they may go unaddressed. Young children often lack a solid understanding of time as a concept, and may not understand you will return for them at the end of the day.

Addressing Separation Anxiety

While this is a developmentally-appropriate way for young children to respond to both separation and an upheaval in their daily routine, it’s still important for parents help their child adjust accordingly.


  • Practice Separation – Ideally, this will begin before your child starts attending daycare. In the days or even weeks leading up to the first day in a center, start talking to your child about what to expect from daycare and practicing small separations.

  • Establish a Ritual – Just as children thrive when their routine is dependable, they also respond well to dependable rituals. Creating your own ritual may consist of singing a song, or saying the same phrase each day. At the same time, work to establish a corresponding reunion ritual which is linked to the goodbye. When you say your goodbyes at the beginning of the day, your child knows the corresponding reunion is approaching at day’s end.

  • Don’t Linger – While it’s tempting to give into to cries and pleas for another hug or one more song, it can actually help to prolong the anxiety. Giving into bargaining prevents the establishment of recognizable boundaries, and can actually lengthen the period of intense fear due to your imminent departure.

  • Stay Positive – It’s devastating to leave your crying, hysterical child behind, but staying positive is of vital importance. When you display your own anxiety or become upset, you telegraph those emotions to your already-upset child. When you’re scared or upset, your child knows he should be upset or scared, too. Even if you’re struggling internally, stay upbeat and smile when you say your goodbyes.

  • Use Comfort Items – If your child’s daycare center allows the use of comfort items, sending a piece of home can provide your child with a tangible link to you. Just be sure not to choose favorite items, as they can become lost or damaged in a daycare setting.

When Separation Anxiety is Serious

While some degree of separation anxiety is normal, prolonged anxiety which children struggle to overcome even after establishing a routine in daycare may be struggling from separation anxiety disorder. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates up to four percent of children between the ages of seven and nine struggle with separation anxiety disorder, which can present as extreme homesickness, refusal to separate from a loved one or extreme anxiety. In such cases, you should consult with your child’s pediatrician to address and discuss the condition.

Separation anxiety disorders are rare, and the vast majority of children will stop crying when you’re out of sight and they’re otherwise engaged at daycare. With nurturing and time, your child will become secure in your return, and begin to overcome daycare separation anxiety.

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