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Dealing with the First Day of Daycare: Separation Anxiety

The first day of daycare can be a particularly stressful time for many children and their parents.

Although some children start daycare without trouble, most young children feel anxious and distressed when they’re left on their own and separated from their parents.

If you’re concerned about your young child crying and screaming when you drop them off in daycare, know that you’re not alone.

Separation anxiety in young children is common and normal, and it’s a natural part of their growth and development.

And as they get older and develop a better sense of their own self, this anxiety will gradually fade away.

What causes separation anxiety?

Many young children often experience separation anxiety on their first several days in daycare because they identify themselves strongly with their parents or carers.

When you leave your young child in daycare for the first time and disappear, they might feel like a part of them has gone missing.

Your child may also not fully understand yet that you’ll come back for them after dropping them off, making them feel intensely alone and abandoned.

Together, these feelings can make them feel stressed and anxious in daycare, especially during drop-offs.

But the good news is that separation anxiety will gradually disappear as your child settles in and understands that you’ll always return after leaving them.

Until then, however, you may need to help them settle in.

Tips for helping your child on their first day of daycare

  • Warm them up for daycare.

One of the best ways to reduce separation anxiety during daycare drop-offs is to make them feel familiar with their daycare centre before their first day. If possible, visit the centre together at least a few times to see the facilities and meet their carers ahead of time. Sessions like orientation visits are incredibly useful in these situations. The more familiar they are with their daycare centre and the people there, the less threatened they might feel when they’re there without you.

  • Let them know what to expect.

If your child is old enough to talk and understand what you’re saying, help them to prepare for their first day by telling them what to expect during the day. Explain to them how they’re going to meet new friends and have fun playing with them. You can also try introducing the idea of daycare or school before they start by reading school-related children’s books together. (Here are some great children’s books to try.)

  • Make the drop-off short and sweet.

It’s important to make your goodbye as positive and reassuring as possible. And one of the best ways to do this is to keep your drop-offs short and sweet. It’s tempting to prolong their drop-off if they start crying as you leave, but drawing it out can often just make things worse. Instead, try to hug and kiss your child goodbye sweetly, tell them you’ll be back soon, and then hand them off with their carer confidently. Try to make them feel as reassured and safe as possible, and then trust their carer to take over from there.

  • Work with your daycare provider.

Every child behaves differently, so it’s important to work with your daycare provider to help make your child’s transition as smooth as possible. If your child is feeling particularly anxious or nervous about starting daycare, let their carer know ahead of time so they can help you when it’s time to drop off your child. Your daycare provider should then be able to give your child the special attention and care your child needs.

  • Be calm, positive, and confident.

Remember that children love to copy their parents. If you feel stressed and anxious during their drop-off, chances are they’ll feel the same way. You can help you child feel less stressed by being calm, confident, and positive throughout their drop-off. This will help them feel safer and feel like nothing will go wrong once you leave. The calmer and more confident you are during their drop-off, the less likely they’ll feel threatened when you walk away.

Need help managing the stress?

Starting daycare is a big milestone for most children, but it can also be incredibly stressful for both them and their parents.

If you’ve been feeling extremely anxious about your child transitioning to daycare, we can help you manage your stress and anxiety appropriately so it’s less likely to affect your child.

CFHP offer services for stress management and anxiety counselling that can help you make this milestone (and all the ones after it) a more positive experience for your child and yourself.

Annabelle Young

Clinical Psychologist Annabelle Young has extensive experience in working with people with depression, anxiety (including panic), adjustment difficulties, stress, trauma, PTSD, bipolar disorder, low self-esteem, grief and loss, interpersonal difficulties, as well as alcohol and drug use issues.

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