Four Tips for Managing Children’s Fear of Separation when Preschools and Day Cares Re-open

5/19/2020 | Kevin D. Arnold, PhD, ABPP

Separation Anxiety and Day Care/School Closings

Many parents and children have been home together during Ohio’s stay-at-home orders with schools and day cares closed. The impact on many children of the abrupt staying at home likely included anxiety and distress. When young children lose connections to their teachers, care providers, and friends so quickly, they react with upset and fear.

Youngsters below the age of six (6) years experience these kinds of losses mostly through emotions, and communicate it largely with behaviors. Developmentally, they don’t often possess the maturity to use words to think or communicate even in concrete ways. As a result, the feelings of lost attachments to their caregivers and friends probably left them sad, scared, and angry at home. But, over time, most children get used to the change, and their difficult feelings lessen while reforming their connections to parents and siblings.

Separation Anxiety and Returning to Day Care/Preschool

Unfortunately, just as quickly as day cares and preschools closed, they will re-open. And, as they do, so too will children likely experience a similar separation anxiety and distress to leaving the day-to-day contact with parents and siblings. Parents and young children face the probability of going through difficult challenges when returning to childcare after the pandemic interventions are removed or lessened.

Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Children’s Fears

An important factor about returning to day care/preschool in a post-COVID-19 world includes exposing children to news media and parental conversations about the risk of serious illness or death from the virus. While parents try to shield their young ones from the news or grown-up talks about the pandemic, most children now know that many people become sick or died…and that the risks continue to exist. They see the masks and six-foot markers on the floors of stores. And, developmentally, these very concrete signs of danger translate into fears of children that they may catch a frightening illness, they may give it to others, or that parents/loved ones will become ill or die. In very real ways, the fear of separation upon returning to day care/preschool grows with the fears of COVID-19.

Four Tips on How to Help Children Return to Day Care/Preschool

1. Build Resiliency

Children naturally learn to manage feelings through accepting them and solving the problems causing those emotions. Parents can use a four (4) step strategy to help children become resilient to distressing events: a) parents see their children’s emotions as opportunities to teach resiliency, b) parents verbally label children’s emotions out loud (“It looks like you’re scared I might get sick.”), c) parents empathize with their children’s feelings (“I remember when I was scared when my parent got sick, I really understand being scared of that.”), and d) parents teach a problem solving strategy (“Let’s test the idea that I’m sick by taking my temperature and seeing if I’m coughing a lot. Here, you be the doctor and examine me.”). These steps have been shown to teach children to manage their feelings.

2. Use FEAR Coping

Children can manage separating again more easily if they can practice the experience ahead of time and facing the scariness of being apart again. Do the practice many times, optimally until children say their fear of going back to day care/preschool is reduced.

Here is the basic format for the FEAR coping strategy:  

Feelings Expecting bad things Alternative ideas/actions Results/rewards

a. Feelings: have the children understand their anxiety and distress by describing it, including where in their body they feel it. Use a stick figure drawing to see if they feel it in their stomach, heart, shoulders, etc. and draw circles around the places on the stick figure.

b. Expecting bad things: ask children to say out loud their scary ideas of what will happen when they return to day care/preschool. Children benefit from knowing what their anxious ideas are.

c. Alternative ideas/actions: help children discover alternative ideas to their bad-things-thoughts that include recalling how things were OK when they went to day care/preschool last fall.

d. Results/rewards: help children imagine how things will turn out OK and praise them for facing their fears during this practice.

3. Transitioning to Day Care/Preschool

The newness of returning can distress children all on its own. Parents can help children overcome that newness by taking steps toward returning before the big day. These steps can include driving by the building (always use the same route to get there), sitting in the parking lot together, and even walking up to the school door a few days ahead of time. These gradual steps toward the first drop-off can sometimes inoculate children from the fear beforehand.

4. Nerves of Steel

When the drop-off occurs, parents may need to be ready too. They can help prepare by running through that morning themselves, repeatedly prior to the actual event. And, if children begin to cry and beg, parents may need to hand them over to the staff and use their “nerves of steel” to keep moving out the door and back to the car. Parents serve their children’s needs best when the teach, through example, not being afraid of being scared.

Kevin D. Arnold, PhD, ABPP

Psychologist and President, The Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy

Partnering with Central Ohio Primary Care in Total Care through Co-Location

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