Daycare and separation anxiety

heading to daycare
heading to daycare 

Q: My toddler is starting daycare again soon and I am dreading the first few weeks because I know it is going to be a running battle. After spending a lot of time together over Christmas and the summer holidays he's likely to get very clingy when we start the usual routine again. What can I do to try and prevent his anxiety?

Fran Vertue, a child psychologist from Christchurch, gives her advice.

I'm assuming your son has been through this process before - and now, having had lots of time with parents over a holiday period, he's transitioning back to daycare. You know that he will settle back after a little while, so make a decision that the unsettled time will be shorter this time, rather than worrying about it and thinking it'll never end.

First, you need to be clear in your own mind that daycare is the right thing to do because your uncertainty will communicate itself to your child. This can increase his anxiety and may escalate his clinging behaviour.

Once you are clear in your own mind, and have told yourself that he will be fine and that the clingy stage will pass, it'll be easier to be firm and warm with him. He will always take his lead from you and is probably quite sensitive to your mental state, so if you're worrying about it, he'll pick that up and also worry about it.

Sometimes, parents who are worrying about whether they are doing the right thing may spend too much time talking with the child about the upcoming separation. This is usually done in an attempt to allay the child's anxiety, but the attention he gets for expressing his anxiety will only reinforce his anxious behaviours. So the general rule is: Less talk and more action. Remember that his memory isn't big enough yet to hold things in mind constantly; take advantage of this and enjoy the last of the holiday period as though it's not going to stop.

Second, in the week before he goes back to daycare, re-introduce the concept casually and occasionally (for example, drive past daycare and point it out in an excited voice with "It will be so much fun to see your friend Thomas again" and "You're so big now, I bet you'll be able to climb even higher than last year"). Then drive on and don't dwell on it; change the subject. The point is to re-excite him about the things he likes about daycare in little "bites"; don't focus on any of his negatives about daycare, such as the daily separation.

If he has a special friend at daycare, organise one or two playdates in the time leading up to his return to daycare. Start using some of the "special" clothes or equipment (backpacks, etc) that are usually reserved for daycare.

See if you can organise for him to have a quick visit with a favourite teacher at daycare this week - maybe even get him up and dressed as you would if he was going to daycare for the day, and tell him that he's going to visit for a little while and that you're going to see him soon.

Third, avoid making a huge deal of the first day at daycare the day before. By then, he'll be re-familiarised with the equipment and people and routines of the daycare business, so be as matter-of-fact as you can on the day. Assume that, whatever happens, you're doing the best for him by maintaining your strong role as his parent. This will communicate to him that there is nothing to worry about because you are so clear and calm and going about the business in a confident way.

If, in spite of all this, your child experiences extreme distress for a very long time when he's at daycare, you might think about consulting with an expert in the field of children's anxiety.