Coping with Separation Anxiety: Tips for Parents of Young Children Starting Daycare

Coping with Separation Anxiety: Tips for Parents of Young Children Starting Daycare


Hello, Dr. Joanette my daughter age three, recently started attending daycare for the first time. Every day I drop her off, it is a struggle to say goodbye. She cries and clings to me and begs me to stay. It takes a long time before I can get out the door of her daycare, and by then, I’m feeling so anxious and full of doubts that I cry on the way to work in the car.  Any suggestions?


Hello, and I can hear your frustration and distress over this challenging situation.  Your daughter is having difficulty separating from you when you drop her off at daycare.  Separation anxiety is a normal and common developmental stage for young children.  I hear how difficult it is for both of you.  Please know nothing is wrong with your daughter or you for being distressed.  What you are experiencing is normal and okay.
What can you do to help her and you deal with separation anxiety so you both feel more comfortable and secure when you drop her off?

First, it’s important to understand why separation anxiety occurs.

Children come hard-wired for survival.  For young children, this means they need to stay close to you.  You are their primary source of comfort and security.  They rely on you for their biological and emotional survival.  When you’re not there, she feels scared or anxious, and this can manifest in clingy behavior, crying, and other challenging behaviors.

One of my favorite strategies for coping with separation anxiety is to pre-wire brain circuits to help your child feel safe in new situations.  Even though you’ve been dropping her off for a few days, this strategy is still helpful.

Do practice runs with her.  Practice by going with her to the daycare after hours, walking her to the door, and saying goodbye.

Practice at home by pretending your front door is the entrance to the daycare facility.  Practice during play with her helping their animals or toys go to daycare and say goodbye.

An essential part of this routine is also practicing the goodbye.
The goodbye should be caring and loving but short.  Tell your daughter your version of the following,

“When we get to daycare, I will walk you to the door and give you a big hug and a kiss.  Tell you I love you, and I will be back when daycare is over.  Then I will leave you with Ms. Smith and go to work.”

Then practice doing this at home and outside of the actual dropoff.

You are wiring the circuits that teach her she is safe at daycare, and you always come back at the end of the day to pick her up.  Now every time you drop her off, you are strengthening these circuits.  This can help your daughter build trust and confidence in her abilities to feel safe and secure even when you’re not there.

You will pre-wire this new brain circuit by practicing it several times at home until she is comfortable with the dropoff routine.  This can help your child feel more in control of the situation and provide a sense of predictability.
Finally, taking care of your own emotional needs as a parent is important. 

Separation anxiety can also be difficult for parents, and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed or anxious about leaving your child. It’s okay to cry and be upset.  Keep it together until your child is in daycare and you are back in the car.  Then let it all out and have a good cry.  It is also helpful to have a support system in place.  Someone who you can call or text that gets what you are going through.

Remember, separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood, and with pre-wiring, practice, patience, and understanding, you and your daughter can work through it together.