A Word about Separation Anxiety

This article was first distributed to parents in Wee Care in September 2002.

A number of years ago, my elder daughter turned 2, and I felt that the time had come for her to join a more structured learning programme. Although one of my intentions was to encourage her to develop intellectually, I also wanted to give her the opportunity to play with other children. At that time, she was my only child and I wanted her to stop seeing me as her sole playmate and friend. I had stopped work to stay at home to be with her, and she had subsequently become very attached, and quite clingy and shy socially.

I chose a small school close to my home. I liked the lady who ran the school for I could see that she had a genuine heart for the children in her care. I also liked their play-based approach to teaching and learning. Unfortunately, the time came for me to leave my daughter with the teachers in that school, and that was when the “trauma” began. I was a new mother and I did not know how to deal with the separation anxiety and crying that invariably ensued.

Looking back, the fact that there was little communication between the teachers and I made things worse. For one, none of the teachers sought to assuage my fears, or give me the assurance that my daughter would be looked after, and looked after well. None spoke about time-lines in the sense of when they anticipated the crying would end. And of course, quite naturally, I was highly anxious and un-cooperative. I found it difficult to leave the school’s premises, and kept looking through the glass panel of the classroom door to see if my daughter was all right. And she, of course, would cry even louder whenever she chanced to see my image or reflection.

The crying continued through what seemed like eternity, and I became more stressed and disconcerted by the way things were going. The final straw came when I overheard the main teacher say in exasperation to her colleague one day, “aiyah, she’s seen her mummy through the door again”. Later that day, this same teacher said to me, and coldly as well, “your daughter’s not ready for this programme”.

Needless to say, I gave up trying, complained to the principal about the teacher, and then abandoned the whole idea of putting my daughter in school for another whole year.

In retrospect, I realize that more could have been done, both on my part, and on the part of that school, to ease my daughter’s transition into a stand-alone programme. What is more, now that I am on the other side of the fence, I get to see the transition process both from the perspective of the frightened child, and that of the teacher who is trying to soothe him/her. And I am writing this memo with the hope that it will help all of us (parents, grandparents, nannies, educators and administrators) to work together in a consistent way towards every child’s admission into the Bright Starts programme, where there is:

  • a successful step into self-confidence and independence
  • with trust for teachers and friends
  • and security about the family’s love and reliability in returning


The process of parent-child bonding begins very early in life. Form the moment of birth, the baby is attuned to his/her mother’s voice and scent. And over time, he/she begins to form multiple attachments to other individuals, such as his/her father, grandparents and maids.

A critical factor that influences the degree and “strength” of this bond is responsiveness. Research has shown that the more responsive the adult is to the child’s needs, the more likely the child will develop a deep and lasting bond with that specific adult. This bond is a reflection of the child feeling safe and secure in a world that looks potentially very harmful and dangerous. To flip the coin the other way, it would be more surprising to see a young child leave the boundaries of a familiar adult to move off with a stranger instead.

On the practical level therefore, you are likely to observe a number of typical behavioural patterns whilst your child is still at this early stage of learning the whos, whys, whens and hows of family and school life:

The child cries when separated from you, or when he/she anticipates that a separation is forthcoming. The crying peaks quite rapidly during the first few days of school, and the child can appear extremely upset and distressed by the episodes. This period of stress for all concerned can last from between 1 day to 5 weeks. At home, the child can become more clingy and fussy during the transition period, and can fret over incidences that never troubled him/her before (eg. when you walk a few steps away, when you leave the room, when you go to the toilet).

When the child starts to make important associations (eg. Mummy comes after teacher sings “good-bye”), he/she begins to stop crying when separating. And the greater the understanding that Mummy always comes back to take me home again, the greater the likelihood that he/she will begin to relax and enjoy school-life. Having said this however, the inclination is always likely to be that the child would very naturally prefer to stay with you than with us, even when familiarity is no longer an issue! Think about this: you comfort and care when illness strikes. You respond and appear in the middle of the night. You take your child out for holidays, weekend jaunts and other special outings. You buy treats and books and presents, sometimes for no reason at all. You are special to your child, just as your child is special to you, and this relationship is the basis for the crying and distress that takes place at the onset of entering school.

As such, you may find “mini-periods” of transition and crying occurring once in a while again, such as after a holiday break, a period of illness or a life-change (eg. a new baby or a new house). And ever so often, the child’s crying is a reflection of a need for reassurance (i) that he/she is still loved, and (ii) that there is constancy and security amidst change and upheaval.


Fundamentally, teachers of very young children have multiple roles to play in any one day. Not only do they teach, they also have to mediate as psychologists (to counsel), lawyers (to intervene in squabbles), bodyguards (to protect) and nannies (to clean, wipe and wash!)

During the transition phase, the conscientious and informed teacher seeks to establish a relationship of trust with the young child. Trust develops when the child knows that he/she can go to the teacher for what he/she needs and wants. If this relationship of trust does not develop, transition goes awry, and the child continues to fear and fret separation from his/her family. Sometimes, families have difficulty “letting go” (just as I did in my story above) and this can block and critically undermine the teacher’s attempts to become trustworthy.


Parents experience a range of feelings when they know that their child is fretting and crying. These include:

Helplessness – that they cannot do anything to help, but must stay out of the way instead
Frustration – that their child cries
Guilt – that they are subjecting their child to this kind of “trauma”
Anger – possibly, if their child cries for longer than anticipated
Worry – that the school teachers may not “understand” the child enough.

Nonetheless, it is erroneous to think that you cannot do anything to facilitate your child’s progression into a         stand-alone programme. Here are some suggestions to help you teach your child what going to school independently is all about:

Social Stories

These are little stories that you can write for your child on a white-board, or on small pieces of paper clipped together in the middle like a book. In it, have your child as the main character of the story. Add little graphics as you see fit. In the story, emphasize the sequence of the child’s day in school; how there is a “good-bye” and “hello” for instance, and importantly, that seeing you again is a regular part of the routine after the good-bye songs and stickers for the day.

Puppet Play

I love “Little People” sets that you can buy from IKEA, Playmobile or most toy-shops. I always try and get a selection of “people” including one that represents me, the Mummy, one that represents Daddy, but also friends, and teachers. Add little pieces of furniture, and play school! In this, emphasize that children go in to school after saying good-bye to Mummy, and that after school, they say good-bye to the teacher, and hello to Mummy again.

Time & Sequences

Young children find it difficult to understand something as abstract as time, so during class-hours, we have indicators of how the day is moving on with songs such as “It’s time to wash our hands”. You can do the same by giving your child an indicator of when you will be back; for example, by buying a kiddy watch and showing your child what it will say when it is time to go home.

Positive Talk

I found it useful to give my child the assurance that she would definitely have to come home or she would be missed. For instance, you could say, “Oh, kitty needs you to come home on time to feed her. So I shan’t be late picking you up from school.” If you don’t have a pet, you could say, “Well, after school, we have to go and see Grandma. She says that she has a present for you.” In this way, your child knows that you will definitely be back. Importantly, please tell the class teacher some of what you have said so that the teacher can remind your child of these facts during class hours. Additionally, always emphasize how “school is fun” where “you can play with your friends” and “paint and run and jump and sing”. Please do not scold or berate your child for being scared. And please do not say how you cannot be there because the teacher might scold you! That only gives the impression that we are ogres and monsters!

A Comforter

Give the child something to hold or carry that acts as a soother or an emotional anchor. This could be a favourite bottle or a stuffed toy. I know that some schools are against this idea, but we are not, and so if your child uses his thumb like a pacifier, let us know.


Please be punctual when picking up your child. I know that this is not always possible, but I am referring to the transition period in particular when your child needs to know that you are there at the end of class. The more times your child sees you present after school, the more confident he/she will be of separating from you at the start of the day.

And so, hopefully, we will all know that separation anxiety is simply a part of the process of growing up. I have older friends who remind me that one day, children become teenagers who “hang out” with their friends rather than their parents. And this always serves to remind me to treasure these moments of my children’s lives, rather than feel anxious or exasperated by what may seem like negative behaviour. I hope that you will also.

Happy Parenting!

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