Separation Anxiety: What to do?

Recently, a child started at the child care centre I volunteer at.

It seems as if she has had no previous experience being at a centre and away from her family. On Thursday, her fourth day without her parents at the centre, she cried for the whole day and asked “Where’s Mommy and Daddy?”

As soon as she came into the classroom, one of the educators took the child in her arms as the parents left and the child cried. The educator tried to distract her by introducing her to me, but the child only wanted to be held. She reached out her arms to me and the educator passed her on. (As a volunteer, I had more opportunity to spend one-on-one attention with the children because I was not counted for ratios and I had less responsibility with the overall class.) I attempted many times to get the child down and play throughout the morning, but she seemed to feel so miserable that nothing took her away from her sadness.

I took her to the window and we watched the toddlers play outside. The child continued to look for her parents through the window and pointed to a car that she thought was “Daddy’s car”. She still felt sad, but her crying has dwindled down. As I started to feel tired carrying her, we sat down at the book centre and I read her some books. She cried again. I tried to take her to different areas of the classroom to play, but she still refused to do anything but cry. Eventually, I was advised to ignore the child’s crying. So even as I held her at the book centre and rocked her a little bit, I turned my attention to another child and read a book with him. Soon, I had to leave her to get the children’s coats and to help everyone get ready for outdoor play.

Outside, I did what I could not to pay attention to her crying, but I did my best to coax her to play. As I ran around the playground with other children, she followed us and ran along. She also smiled as she went down the slide a few times, which she did only if I went with her to the slide structure. She followed me as I walked around the perimeter and interacted with different children. She also showed me a purple ball outside the fence and asked if we could get it. Later, she played with a small hopper ball before asking if I can help her get on the large one. For a moment, she seemed to have forgotten her woes: she stopped crying and she engaged in play.

However, it was short-lived. As soon as the class headed back inside, she cried again. She continued to do so throughout lunch, nap time, and part of work time. She only hushed when an educator sat with her in the circle and reminded her saying, “I’m here.” Then, as soon as she saw her grandmother at the door, she bolted and hugged her.

Throughout this whole incident, I was not sure what to do.

I wanted to comfort the child, but I did not know how, considering my attempts at explaining to her that her parents will be back for her, I assume, were not understood. She also did not take well to having her attention diverted while inside the classroom. I thought that following the advice given to me was best. Or at least, I hoped that ignoring the child’s crying would help her stop the behaviour since only outdoor play has done it for her and I had no authority to take her or the whole class out for a longer period. I felt the child’s sadness but did not know how to make her feel better.

Miller (2016) says, “Children need caregivers’ patient emotional support to get them through the ordeal of separation anxiety” (p. 61), but I still wonder how I could provide this emotional support. Is ignoring the child’s crying appropriate at any point? Does giving her attention coddle her? In what other ways can I communicate to her that the child care centre is a safe place for her and that she will see her parents again soon?

I want to give her the extra attention she needs, but how do I do that without stepping on anyone’s toes (i.e. those of the educators’, who are in charge of the classroom)? What if she gets used to getting the extra care but the time comes that I am unable to give her that? What happens when I’m not around—would I be one of those people she cries for when she feels anxious or will she look for that extra attention from the other educators?

Each child is different and each educator is equally unique. I just hope that I could follow through what I think is right for the children when time comes that I have my own classroom to manage.


Miller, D.F. (2016). Positive child guidance, 8th ed. Massachusetts: Cengage Learning.

4 thoughts to “Separation Anxiety: What to do?”

  1. Camille, this is a problem we all face: when is attention necessary and when is it becoming too much.

    When I had a new child [at the child care centre I work at,] I was told to ignore her but [I didn’t]. When the educator noticed me comforting [the child] she told [my college teacher about it]. My college professor [told me] that I was doing a wonderful job and I am very nurturing. I think your approach should depend on [whether] the child was a little more relaxed when you comforted her. In your case, the answer to that question is a yes at some point of the day, so just keep on going.

    [edited for clarity]

  2. One of my main concerns about comforting a child when asked not to is the reaction I’d get from my superiors. I don’t want to disrespect anyone, but I also want to try a different strategy in calming a child down.

    Today, I came across this article on Harvard Business Review: How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful Than You. I think it will be helpful to try the suggested strategies in approaching such a problem.

    It is clear that the educators and I have a shared goal: to have the new child stop crying and feel better being at the centre. Thus, I could reframe my question from, “Should I sit with her at nap time?” to “May I read to her and see if she would stop crying and fall asleep?” By asking for their permission (rather than their direct approval), I still acknowledge their authority, but concurrently bring forth a suggestion of what I could do to help the child stop crying.

    Of course, that is only one way of doing it. And I hope I don’t have to do it the next time I go into the centre; I hope that by the end of this week, the child has started to become accustomed and acclimatized to her new learning environment. I hope that she engages more in play and less in sadness.

  3. Interesting, Camille. The educator and the child were both fortunate to have your presence and your ability to spend extra time with the child. If this was ineffective, imagine how much more difficult it would be for both had you not been there. That is often the situation in the classroom.
    Could the child have been given a cuddly toy to hold and play with, perhaps tasked with looking after it so it didn’t feel sad and alone? Could another child also have been given a toy and tasked similarly?
    Each child and situation is unique and it is difficult to give a “best” response for all situations. Obviously we want happy children and wish to avoid any distress being passed on to others.
    I wonder if, had they been asked, other children may have been able to offer a solution, perhaps inviting her to join in their games.

    1. Thank you for these great thoughts, Norah.

      I focused on the child too much and in redirecting her instead of directing another child to her. I’ve learned about this strategy in school but have yet to remember it in the heat of the moment.

      As for the cuddly toy, I think the educators did something similar the week after I wrote about this. But I’ve only seen it at nap time when I came in to volunteer because I wasn’t with this particular child’s group that day.

      I shall see how she is when I visit this week and try your suggestions if needed. Thank you again, Norah!

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