Tips for Dealing with Separation Anxiety in the Nursery

Tips for Dealing with Separation Anxiety in the Nursery

One of the most difficult things that we deal with in Preschool Ministry (both as teachers and parents) is ‘separation anxiety.’

Separation anxiety is defined as anxiety provoked in a young child by separation or the threat of separation from its mother or main caregiver. This is a normal phase that most, it not all, children go through before the age of four. During these years, children are struggling between a desire to strike out on their own and yet wanting to stay safe by a parent or caregiver's side. Separation Anxiety can come and go and often comes in waves, where a child is fine for several weeks, and then suddenly one Sunday at drop off they struggle to say bye to mom. 

Separation Anxiety is tough for all involved - the child, the parent and the teacher/ caregiver who the child is being left with; although it’s often toughest on moms who naturally hate to hear their child upset.

The goal for Preschool Ministry volunteers is for moms to be able to leave and enjoy the worship service. That’s the main reason Preschool Ministries exist, to support the preaching of the Word by providing a safe and caring environment where young children can hear the gospel proclaimed, while their parents are left to participate in the worship service without distractions.

What can Preschool Ministry Volunteers do to help ease this process?

Here are 5 things you can do:

  1. Pray - Pray regularly for the little ones in your ministry and their parents. Let parents know you're praying for them. [Personal note- not long ago when my son was struggling, the wife of one of our elders stood in the hallway and prayed for me just out of earshot of my screaming son week after week.]
  2. Know children by name. - Get to know all of the little ones in your ministry and be excited and happy to see them. If possible, have the same person present every week at drop-off time, or have a team of familiar faces that toddlers regularly see. 
  3. Go-To activities. - Have a repertoire of go-to calming activities so upset toddlers know what to expect. Some tried and true options are; blowing bubbles, dancing to music, playing with play dough, or holding them and singing a special song.
  4. Communicate with parents. - Be gracious with parents, while still holding to your nursery policies [ie. no parents in the class]. Ask parents for ideas of what may help their child. Lovingly let parents know that you will not let there child cry more than a set amount of time (determine with parents 5-10 minutes) and that you will call them to come back if needed. Also let parents know that you'll text when they do calm down. One thing that can be extra helpful when communicating with parents is communicating the below 10 tips for dealing with separation anxiety. Helping parents be prepared is key.
  5. Be set up for drop-off. - This means both having the room ready for the first child, and making sure that the set-up of your room makes it easy for parents to drop off and leave.

As you communicate with parents, one of the best things you can do is equip them. Walk them through the process and help them know that what's happening is normal and you are ready to walk through it with them.

Consider sharing these 10 tips for dealing with separation anxiety with the parents in your church.

  1. Be Consistent - This means attend regularly and make church a priority for your family. We all have busy schedules, but if church is a regular part of your family's schedule, your child will be expecting and even looking forward to it.
  2. Prepare for Sunday throughout the week. - Talk about church throughout the week. Sing the songs they he’ll hear at church during family worship, read the stories he’ll hear, etc. Go to bed Saturday night excited about getting to go to church in the morning. The more excited you are about church, the more excited your child will be.
  3. Arrive on time, well fed and happy. - Sunday mornings are often stressful for the whole family. Plan ahead to make sure you’re on time so your child doesn’t feel your stress. Assure they’ve eaten and all other needs are met. Bring your child to the room and introduce him to the teacher. Point out an activity the teacher has out and encourage him to join in.
  4. Remember that this is a normal phase that most children go through. - As your child is trying to develop his independence and testing his boundaries try not to give in. Reassure him that he will be fine and reassure yourself of the same thing.
  5. Make friends with others from church with children in the same class. - If your child has friends in the class he’ll be more likely to be exited about coming to church. Consider planning some play dates with others from his Sunday School class.
  6. Make a plan and communicate it to your child and the teacher. - Plan on your child staying in the room for 5 minutes the first week, 10 minutes the next, etc. Within a few weeks your child will understand that you will come back and will adjust to the new environment.
  7. Develop a special goodbye routine. - This can be a secret handshake, a high five and a cuddle, or saying something silly like ‘see ya later alligator.’
  8. Leave without fanfare. - Let your child know when you are leaving. Tell them you love them and that you’ll be back soon, then calmly walk out of the room, don’t stall and don't sneak out of the room.
  9. Leave completely. - Don’t be tempted to stand outside the door or in the hall waiting for them to stop crying. They can sense you are there and it’ll just be more gut wrenching on you. Trust the teachers in the room and know that they will call you in a few minutes if he hasn’t settled, or text you to tell you he has, if that will make you feel better.
  10. PRAY - Trust this phase of your child’s life, along with every other, to God and know that He will bring you through it.
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