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Separation anxiety in young children who attend childcare centers


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Many parents have left their childcare center or nursery school visibly upset because their son or daughter was crying and begging not to be left at school. The feelings of guilt can be overwhelming when this happens. Parents often feel terrible the whole day thinking about the look on their child's face as they cried for "one more hug" as mom or dad was walking away.

What parents don't get to see is the change that occurs soon after they leave. The child soon forgets their tears and begins playing with their friends. They may even cry when mom or dad comes back because they don't want to leave.

This separation anxiety is natural and is normally cyclical. Many children go through it at one time or another. Even a child who has been in the same center, with the same teachers since infancy can go through days, weeks, or months of tears at drop off during different times of their development.

Ways you can help your child cope

There are several things parents can do to help a child who is having a difficult time saying good-bye.

  • Establish a good-bye routine. This provides predictability. Some examples might be to always wave at the window before you get in your car or give a pattern of two hugs, two kisses, and two more hugs before you leave.
  • Leave the classroom in a timely manner. It is very difficult for a parent to walk away from their child as they are begging them to stay or take them home but it is the best choice. A child's emotions will continue to escalate the more times a parent gives in to the request to stay or give hugs. Once a parent is on their way to work, the child begins to calm down and become absorbed in the activities around him.
  • Always say good-bye. Sneaking out while your child is playing makes it difficult for him to relax. If he knows you will always say good-bye, even if it starts a flood of tears, he will feel more secure leaving your side to go play while you are talking to the teacher or putting his things away.
  • Help your child pick out a picture of the family that he can carry around at school. This will help him feel secure and give him a visual reminder that you haven't disappeared. 
  • Acknowledge your child's feelings. Allow him to be sad or angry that he had to come to school that day. Adults have learned that there are often things they have to do even if they don't want to. Children are still learning that fact. There will be days when they don't want to go to school any more than their parents want to go to work.

Drop off times at school can be extremely stressful for both parents and children. Providing routines, predictability, and empathy can help a child feel secure when saying good-bye.


  • Cathie 5 years ago

    Another fantastic and helpful article from Theresa! The guilt I feel leaving my little guy at preschool as he cries ruins my day and causes me to worry until I pick him up several hours later. Monday morning I will start trying some of Theresa's suggestions. Thank you!!!!

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