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How to separate from your child: Check in with your own feelings first

Listen to their concerns, prepare them for the moment and know when to walk away

Leaving your child can be tricky. You need to get to work or have that long-planned night out, but junior isn’t keen. The first thing to do is to check in with yourself, says clinical paediatric psychologist Dr Claire Crowe. “Acknowledge your feelings about the separation and deal with them compassionately before you attend to your child’s emotions,” says Crowe. “You want to be regulated as a parent so that you can engage with your child in a relaxed, low-key manner about the planned separation, whether that’s a night with the grandparents or starting playschool.” Children are body-readers, if you are distressed, they will pick up on it.

No surprises

If you are going to be leaving your child in someone else’s care, tell them. Waiting until the babysitter arrives before springing it on them won’t help. “Springing news on small children is overwhelming for them and heightens their base anxiety as they will start to expect sudden unwelcome changes in their worlds,” says Crowe. Prepare them a little in advance.

Listen up

If your child is worried about a sleepover with grandparents or a first day at school, listen to them. “Reassuring them too quickly might make them feel like their very real worries don’t matter or are dismissed,” says Crowe. Simply repeat what they are saying so they feel heard and validated: “I hear you saying you don’t think you will be able to sleep at Granny’s house. That sounds like a real worry for you.”

Play it out

Kids learn through play, so if there is a separation looming, use imaginative play to act out the event with them, says Crowe. This will give them a chance to share their fears and it will give you a chance to address them. “Take turns being the minder or the child. Play through what it might be like so your child feels more prepared emotionally and pragmatically for the separation,” she says.


Familiarity breeds contentment

For your child to feel safe and secure in a new environment, give them time to familiarise themselves with the people and the place, says Crowe. “Gradually increase their exposure very slowly and for longer periods of time so they feel confident with carers and their surroundings,” she says. Be prepared for this to take time. If your child is naturally more sensitive or anxious, you will have to work a bit harder at this.

“Your toddler not wanting to go to a stranger simply tells us that they are securely attached to their parents and need time to build other relationships, which is developmentally appropriate.”


Having something from home, like a teddy, blanket or something from the parent to soothe them can help. Tell the carer about it too. “Once the carer understands its importance, they are more likely to facilitate the child having it. It’s not going to be effective if it must remain in their schoolbag.”

Babies and toddlers seek out and thrive in relationships, says Crowe. “Any resistance to separation is developmentally appropriate, so parents need to work hard to scaffold their little person for success.”

Walk away

Children have a hierarchy of who they want to be with. The mother and father are usually at the top. It doesn’t matter that they love their grandmother or childminder, and know that at some level they will have a good time – the moment of separation feels threatening for them, so they feel distressed, says Crowe. Expect that, she says. “I can expect them to be distressed, but I walk away, because if you stay in that position, you prolong it. You don’t alleviate the stress because you are ultimately going to have to go.”

Trust that the person minding them will continue to nurture them when you are gone. “There is a point where a parent has to go to work. We can’t parent our children all the time,” says Crowe. “There is a point where it’s: ‘Here is your teddy, your bag and your snack and I’ll see you later.’ And you walk.” A long goodbye doesn’t serve them, especially on the first day of school. “All that tells the child is that there is something unsafe about this,” says Crowe. That means no lingering at the gate.

“You go because your child will regulate, and that’s part of the confidence of knowing ‘I’ve left them with someone I trust’.”