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Separation Anxiety: Settling Your Child Into a Nursery School

Picture the scene. You walk into a busy nursery school and the little hand in yours holds on even tighter. The place is buzzing with new noise and colour. It’s an immense sea of smiling faces, laughter and the hum of activities in full swing. A pair of boisterous boys flies past in chase and you pull your child closer.

Maybe this wasn’t the best idea after all. You search for the exit, but hold it right there! Take it easy and take another look around. You’ve made it this far. It is all easy to forget that as well as the child suffering with separation anxiety that any parent or carer will be feeling the same. And the feeling can be overwhelming; even more so for us first timers. So as a nursery nurse and a first time mum, I have put together a brief survival guide for parents and carers taking those first daunting steps into the unknown.

Practise leaving your child

Before you attempt to leave your child at a nursery school, playgroup or preschool, try to practise leaving your child with a trusted family member, even if only for an hour or so. Not only will this prepare you for how it will feel to leave your child, but it will demonstrate to your child that you will return. This is very important for a child to learn.

Make the time

Okay, so you have chosen where you want your child to go. The establishment has ticked all the boxes of your needs and requirements. Now it’s time for the initiation process. Make time! The more time the better. Don’t try and complete the process the week just before heading back to work, for example. The rush will not do you or your child any good. In fact, the pressure may make the situation additionally distressing and frustrating for all involved.

Explain what is going to happen and why

Honesty is the best policy here, and in my experience, children need to know (simply) why, where, when, and how, in order to feel reassured. Take time to look at books and read stories together about children starting nursery school so you can discuss thoughts and feelings with your child.

Attend free sessions

Try to attend any of the initiation sessions or open days on offer to you. You may even be offered a home visit. This is fantastic way of introducing the new adults into your children’s life: in their own environment where they be more ready and willing to accept new faces. It is also a perfect time for you to discuss any details or ask any questions. You will have their full attention, so utilise it.

Get to know staff

Knowing the staff is important, especially the key worker, if your child is given one. A key worker is an adult assigned to a group of children that will work closely with those children in particular. She should be your first port of call if there are any problems or concerns.

Give the correct contact details for your child

Make sure all your contact details are up to date and complete. I have lost count of the times where I have had a sick child in my care, as we could not contact his parent or guardian!

Settle your child at an activity that she enjoys

Settle your child with the key worker if possible, and then explain to your child clearly that you are going but reassure her that you will be returning soon. Don't just "sneak" away. This can be even more distressing.

Be prepared for the protest.

After all, you have always been there with your child, and the prospect of you not being there may be daunting. At this stage it may be necessary for you only to leave for 5 minutes and then to return. This will be something that you can discuss with the key worker or a member of staff.

Give your child some idea of when you will return and stick to it

Time is a difficult concept for young children to understand, so try to give them some idea of your return by giving them significant points in the day. For example; if you are picking your child up in the afternoon, tell her that you will be back when she has eaten her lunch and had a play. This way the staff can keep reinforcing this and therefore be more reassuring to the child.

Make sure that you will return when you say you will. The child needs to trust that you will return. If you are made late by unforeseen circumstances, try to phone ahead so this can be relayed effectively to your child.

Remember that you and the establishment are on the same team

Don't be afraid to ask for help! The process should be a smooth transition for all involved. The staff’s goals are the same as your own – a happy child! So always ask for support if you need it.

Arrange with the establishment if you may phone to inquire as to how your child is getting on. They are usually only too happy to oblige and there is nothing worse than going through any amount of time wondering if your child has stopped crying or if he is happy.

Positive reinforcement

Always praise your child for all his efforts.Your child will be looking to you for encouragement and support.

And finally

Good luck! Don’t be disheartened if your child doesn’t take to the separation straight away or takes longer than other children to settle. There are no hard and fast rules which state how a child may, or should react to a new situation. It will also be determined by your child’s age and stage of development.

Recognise that the process will be emotional for you too and so be patient with yourself. Have perseverance and a positive attitude, your child will take her cues from you.