Separation Anxiety Runs Both Ways

Working on your anxiety will help your child's anxiety.

By Nando Pelusi Ph.D., published on December 4, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

I have two kids, ages 3 and 1. They started going to nursery school, but it seems to be too difficult for them. Every time I leave, they worry and cry. How do I make separation easier for them?

While you are clearly concerned about them, separation anxiety runs both ways, and you might also have some anxiety about your child's worrying and crying from temporary separation. Separation anxiety for children is an understandable emotion, given that (a) their primary caregiver is leaving, and (b) their new caregivers are strangers. One way to help reduce anxiety is to include the new locale, the nursery school, into a safety zone. How do we help to bring the new caregivers, the teachers, other children, and new location, into the circle of trusted "family" for the child? One way is for you to model the trust you have in the new caregivers.

That means working on your own anxiety about your child, and not experiencing anxiety for them as he or she adapts (with a struggle and some tears). It is difficult for most of us to adapt to radically new experiences, but it rarely ever proves "too difficult." This fact has been shown consistently in studies: We too often believe and predict that some future circumstance will be intolerable. Children do this too. Usually we do this about novel circumstances. But in fact, in spite of fears, as adults we can adapt to the most drastic changes within a few months—and children adapt even more quickly.

Nursery school may seem like a drastic change for children, but it can be a thrilling experience. They can go from fear to excitement—just as we feel when we overcome some fear, such as public speaking or flying.

Most instructors occasionally use distraction to allay a child's anxiety, by giving the child something to focus on. You want to instill in your child the sense that they will be fine, and that you will be reunited soon—but that emerges more quickly when you do things that do not reinforce their angst, like hanging around at drop-off time and indulging their anxiety.

If the anxiety persists they might still be too young to let go—and ages 1 to 3 is very young—and they are not ready yet. That may mean allowing some time for them to grow accustomed to new surroundings as safe and trustworthy, and actually an opportunity for fun.

How to Conquer Separation

  • Model enthusiasm by showing confidence in new children, instructors, and new locations
  • Include others into your circle of family by being friendly to "outsiders"
  • Reward your children with genuine recognition for work and play they have done well and cooperatively

Children can adapt quickly if not easily—once the threshold is reached, they feel right "at home"

If the anxiety persists, keep at it, in all probability your children will grow accustomed to an environment they visit often and will probably see it as a fun place to play, learn, and make friends.