Daycare separation anxiety, three weeks and counting

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 22, 2010 06:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Barbara,

I've read all of your columns about transitioning to daycare, but after three weeks, it seems that my 16-month-old daughter isn't getting any better. In fact, each day seems progressively worse, beginning now with refusal to even get in the car seat in the morning. We do prepare her by telling her that she's going to school and that we will be back for her and to have a good day before we hand her off to a teacher after a quick goodbye. We also try to spend a few minutes getting her acclimated to the daycare surroundings before we do the hand-off. I observe that she continues to cry hysterically for at least another 45 minutes. Sometimes the caregivers are holding her, but sometimes she's just crying and following them around with hands outstretched asking to be held. After that, I can't take it anymore and head off to work. Am I being paranoid by thinking this is not a good place since she's not used to it yet, or is all of this normal? What can I do to make it better?

From: Edna, San Francisco

Dear Edna,

You say that you "observe" that she continues to cry for another 45 minutes, and then you can't take it anymore and head off to work. Does your daughter somehow know that you are still there, watching her? Even if you are watching behind a one-way glass, is it possible (and I hate to think this, but...) the teachers tell her you are watching? Plus, if you see this going on every day, that's doing a huge number on you. It has to be making you edgy and tense (at the least) every night as you anticipate the next morning. Young children pick up on parental stress and anxiety, so the two of you could be feeding off each other. This is my best guess.

Bottom line, though, is that three weeks is a long time for a separation problem of this intensity to go on. So, no, this is not typical and not healthy for anyone involved, from you and your daughter to the other children in the classroom.

Are you being paranoid? Of course not. You're a mom who's watching your daughter reach out to a caregiver, who isn't always picking her up! C'mon! That's hard to watch. Maybe it's time to stop watching. Maybe it's time to actually leave when you tell your daughter you are leaving. Should you make a change of caregivers? That's hard to know. It would be better if the problem can be worked out here, than to bounce a young child around. But if this continues to not abate......

Questions to consider: Do you feel like the teachers are giving you guidance, empathy, and strategies? (It does bother me that they would let this go on for so long at this intensity, simply because it's not good for the other kiddos to see this, either.) Have you requested a meeting with the teachers and the director? Is it possible something else is going on with your daughter? An illness? Some other circumstances at home that are adding stress? Have you just gone back to work after being home with her?

Hopefully, answering these questions will provide some clarity for you.

(For those of you who want more on separation anxiety, here's at least one of the links I think Edna is talking about.)

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

11 comments so far...
  1. You need to leave immediately. I know it is hard but you're making it worse by sticking around any longer than is necessary.

    Posted by JD October 22, 10 08:16 AM
  1. Why isn't anyone giving the child something to do when she comes in? Mom shouldn't be watching for 45 minutes, but they shouldn't let a kid just wander aimlessly crying for 45 minutes either.

    Posted by di October 22, 10 01:28 PM
  1. Occaisionally, my daughter will cry and hold on to me as well. She's 3 1/2 years old now and has been in daycare for most of this time. I quickly learned that the longer I stay there the longer this will continue so the only thing to do is give a quick kiss, tell her I love her and then turn and walk away. I've also learned that I'm no sooner in the car pulling away and her crying fit has stopped. If there's a true issue her daycare will call me. Some times it does get to me but I know deep down she's ok. Hope this helps!

    Posted by TW October 22, 10 02:59 PM
  1. Your child could be an anxious child. The fact that she just wants to be held by you or another adult does seem to be an indicator. Both separation anxiety and selective mutism are expressions of anxiety disorder--my child experiences both. Unfortunately very few child psychologists and fewer pediatricians can help you work through this with children under five. You have to find ways to help your child calm herself and feel safe and secure, and that depends on her personality. The daycare workers should be willing to work with you. Early Intervention helped us--they visited us at home and at the daycare. Shorter days away from home can be good, if you can afford it. Other concrete things you can do: give your child a toy she can carry around and feel comforted by when at the daycare. If the daycare says no, then something you can clip to her clothes or even going back to a pacifier could also give her reassurance.

    Of course, it could just be you're in for a long haul. My first child cried every morning for six weeks before settling in to her daycare. She does not suffer from anxiety. My second cried for a couple of months and then stopped speaking entirely for over six months. That child continues to only whisper to her adult daycare-givers. So clearly the second case is more extreme and just a function of that child's personality. The good news about anxiety is that it can be controlled (not just by drugs but also by behavioral therapy) and a lot of literature says that anxious people are also the most conscientious and make excellent students and workers.

    I hope things get better soon, or at least that you can feel better once you start to take steps to get to the root of your daughters' problem.

    Posted by momof2 October 22, 10 04:26 PM
  1. I have done daycare in my home for 25 years. If your child can see you waiting there for 45 minutes-- then that might very well be why she is acting that way. BUt-- I don't get the sense that she can see you.

    If she can't-- I would seriously think of looking for another situation. This is not a good sign. Whether the location is at fault or not, your child is not happy there for SOME reason. The reason might be the scary one's we all think of, or, it might just not jive with her personality. But-- in either case-- do you want her to have to stay? At the least-- you should be seeing signs that the caregiver (s) are trying to sooth her, involve her, get her in a routine, distract her, read to her.... in short-- searching for something that will help your child. Because ignoring her doesn't seem to be working. And really--- if it's not working-- why are they still doing it?

    Now of course, it might be something within her personality as the PP have suggested, but I have to wonder about a location that would let a 16 month old cry for 45 minutes and not try soothing techniques, They should be your partners in helping her-- and it doesn't sound like they are doing anything proactive.

    Posted by judy October 22, 10 04:51 PM
  1. As someone who works in a day care, I think that it would indeed be a wonderful thing if the teachers could be spending the 45 minutes comforting the child. However, I would advise you to look closely at the staffing there. In my center, you can have a toddler room with easily more than 10 children and only 2 teachers, When you have some children who need to eat, some who need to go to the potty or have diaper changes, a few who need to be monitored for biting, and two adults, unfortunately the needs of the larger group have to take precedence over the single crying child. It's an unfortunate truth about group care that this very frequently occurs as most centers maintain the minimum of the state's ratio requirements.

    Look closely at staffing. Are they truly ignoring her or are they rushing from one task to another? Are there enough teachers in the room? How is your rapport with the existing teachers? What are their techniques in place to deal with this child's distress? I was trained to talk to the crying child if there's a situation in place where she or he cannot be picked up. We would attempt to sooth them verbally, assure them that they will be picked up and tell them when that time is. ("I hear that you're sad, Gene, and I'm so sorry I can't pick you up. As soon as I finish changing Bill, I am going to pick you right up.")

    I have seen that some children never quite adjust. It's rare, but happens. Usually they just don't have the temperament for group care and would benefit from more individualized attention. Looking at how she acts at home is a good idea. Do you hold her frequently? How does she do with friends or relatives you haven't seen in a while? Does she enjoy the company of other children, or does she withdraw back to mom and dad? If the problem at the day care continues, I might look into places with a smaller teacher to student ratio, or possibly one-on-one care.

    And the biggest piece of advice I can give is that you should make drop offs as brief as possible, for her sake and your own. Leave, and call back later to check in. If your day care does not welcome your calls, then that should be a big warning sign.

    Posted by K.B. October 22, 10 05:41 PM
  1. It gives me the creeps to read of anybody who takes on the responsibility of caring for a child, that they would ignore that very clear reaching out message.

    But I guess there is more to the situation than the letter said. Anybody who has 45 minutes to sit there and watch their kid on a video monitor has 45 minutes to spend holding their child, telling them about the day, feeding them breakfast, and making them feel that their needs will be met. If the morning routine doesn't include holding, then all the words in the world don't send a message of safety.

    And those daycare workers must have surgically installed earplugs. How does ANY "caring" human being let a kid cry for 45 minutes???

    Posted by Irene October 22, 10 06:45 PM
  1. I have been fortunate to have had good transitions for my children (3 yrs and 15 mos), one handling it better than the other, but I found it very helpful to have a specific routine, and when we arrive at each of their rooms, put their things away, short discussion with the staff about good night/ difficult morning/whatever and give them breakfast/snack to sit and focus on. They have always done better when they have the structure of sitting and eating when I kiss them goodbye. It provides that little bit of focus instead of ricocheting around a room of kids, some slightly hyped up and rowdy. This was particularly important during transitions when they didn't know the other kids in the room.

    Good luck!

    Posted by Mina October 24, 10 10:25 PM
  1. I have 2 children who have been in daycare since 3 months old. So some experience here. Its important to leave after you tell your child goodbye. Usually as soon as you leave they are OK. They might be sad for a few minutes, but from what I have seen when other parents leave, the kid cries for a minute more and then is fine.

    As for the comment about your child following around a caregiver with her arms outstretched - sure, MAYBE the teacher should pick your child up. But I have seen older children (as in not infants) start daycare and they are so used to being held and picked up whenever they want at home, that they need to get used to not always being held at daycare. The teacher has other children to care for, so they cant always be holding a child who wants to be held. They should however help make goodbye time easier by holding your child then. So I dont really think its definitely the teachers fault, She cant hold your child for 45 minutes and not be able to attend to the other children at that time because her arms are full.

    What has helped with my son is to have him go to a window and wave to me as I am leaving.

    Posted by Kristen October 25, 10 10:55 AM
  1. My daughter was just expelled from a daycare today. The director said she is crying too much. This is her 2nd month here, they said, "We give up." She doesn't let the other kids sleep. I know she is very active, she is very lovely child, but she has too much attachment to her parents. Any legal actions against this center or just try to find another daycare??? Thanks

    Posted by Howard Clark October 25, 10 02:24 PM
  1. Howard -- You may need professional help, but not of the legal variety. Put your focus on trying to figure out why she couldn't adjust. Is there some undiagnosed underling problem?

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz Author Profile Page October 25, 10 03:17 PM
 
11 comments so far...
  1. You need to leave immediately. I know it is hard but you're making it worse by sticking around any longer than is necessary.

    Posted by JD October 22, 10 08:16 AM
  1. Why isn't anyone giving the child something to do when she comes in? Mom shouldn't be watching for 45 minutes, but they shouldn't let a kid just wander aimlessly crying for 45 minutes either.

    Posted by di October 22, 10 01:28 PM
  1. Occaisionally, my daughter will cry and hold on to me as well. She's 3 1/2 years old now and has been in daycare for most of this time. I quickly learned that the longer I stay there the longer this will continue so the only thing to do is give a quick kiss, tell her I love her and then turn and walk away. I've also learned that I'm no sooner in the car pulling away and her crying fit has stopped. If there's a true issue her daycare will call me. Some times it does get to me but I know deep down she's ok. Hope this helps!

    Posted by TW October 22, 10 02:59 PM
  1. Your child could be an anxious child. The fact that she just wants to be held by you or another adult does seem to be an indicator. Both separation anxiety and selective mutism are expressions of anxiety disorder--my child experiences both. Unfortunately very few child psychologists and fewer pediatricians can help you work through this with children under five. You have to find ways to help your child calm herself and feel safe and secure, and that depends on her personality. The daycare workers should be willing to work with you. Early Intervention helped us--they visited us at home and at the daycare. Shorter days away from home can be good, if you can afford it. Other concrete things you can do: give your child a toy she can carry around and feel comforted by when at the daycare. If the daycare says no, then something you can clip to her clothes or even going back to a pacifier could also give her reassurance.

    Of course, it could just be you're in for a long haul. My first child cried every morning for six weeks before settling in to her daycare. She does not suffer from anxiety. My second cried for a couple of months and then stopped speaking entirely for over six months. That child continues to only whisper to her adult daycare-givers. So clearly the second case is more extreme and just a function of that child's personality. The good news about anxiety is that it can be controlled (not just by drugs but also by behavioral therapy) and a lot of literature says that anxious people are also the most conscientious and make excellent students and workers.

    I hope things get better soon, or at least that you can feel better once you start to take steps to get to the root of your daughters' problem.

    Posted by momof2 October 22, 10 04:26 PM
  1. I have done daycare in my home for 25 years. If your child can see you waiting there for 45 minutes-- then that might very well be why she is acting that way. BUt-- I don't get the sense that she can see you.

    If she can't-- I would seriously think of looking for another situation. This is not a good sign. Whether the location is at fault or not, your child is not happy there for SOME reason. The reason might be the scary one's we all think of, or, it might just not jive with her personality. But-- in either case-- do you want her to have to stay? At the least-- you should be seeing signs that the caregiver (s) are trying to sooth her, involve her, get her in a routine, distract her, read to her.... in short-- searching for something that will help your child. Because ignoring her doesn't seem to be working. And really--- if it's not working-- why are they still doing it?

    Now of course, it might be something within her personality as the PP have suggested, but I have to wonder about a location that would let a 16 month old cry for 45 minutes and not try soothing techniques, They should be your partners in helping her-- and it doesn't sound like they are doing anything proactive.

    Posted by judy October 22, 10 04:51 PM
  1. As someone who works in a day care, I think that it would indeed be a wonderful thing if the teachers could be spending the 45 minutes comforting the child. However, I would advise you to look closely at the staffing there. In my center, you can have a toddler room with easily more than 10 children and only 2 teachers, When you have some children who need to eat, some who need to go to the potty or have diaper changes, a few who need to be monitored for biting, and two adults, unfortunately the needs of the larger group have to take precedence over the single crying child. It's an unfortunate truth about group care that this very frequently occurs as most centers maintain the minimum of the state's ratio requirements.

    Look closely at staffing. Are they truly ignoring her or are they rushing from one task to another? Are there enough teachers in the room? How is your rapport with the existing teachers? What are their techniques in place to deal with this child's distress? I was trained to talk to the crying child if there's a situation in place where she or he cannot be picked up. We would attempt to sooth them verbally, assure them that they will be picked up and tell them when that time is. ("I hear that you're sad, Gene, and I'm so sorry I can't pick you up. As soon as I finish changing Bill, I am going to pick you right up.")

    I have seen that some children never quite adjust. It's rare, but happens. Usually they just don't have the temperament for group care and would benefit from more individualized attention. Looking at how she acts at home is a good idea. Do you hold her frequently? How does she do with friends or relatives you haven't seen in a while? Does she enjoy the company of other children, or does she withdraw back to mom and dad? If the problem at the day care continues, I might look into places with a smaller teacher to student ratio, or possibly one-on-one care.

    And the biggest piece of advice I can give is that you should make drop offs as brief as possible, for her sake and your own. Leave, and call back later to check in. If your day care does not welcome your calls, then that should be a big warning sign.

    Posted by K.B. October 22, 10 05:41 PM
  1. It gives me the creeps to read of anybody who takes on the responsibility of caring for a child, that they would ignore that very clear reaching out message.

    But I guess there is more to the situation than the letter said. Anybody who has 45 minutes to sit there and watch their kid on a video monitor has 45 minutes to spend holding their child, telling them about the day, feeding them breakfast, and making them feel that their needs will be met. If the morning routine doesn't include holding, then all the words in the world don't send a message of safety.

    And those daycare workers must have surgically installed earplugs. How does ANY "caring" human being let a kid cry for 45 minutes???

    Posted by Irene October 22, 10 06:45 PM
  1. I have been fortunate to have had good transitions for my children (3 yrs and 15 mos), one handling it better than the other, but I found it very helpful to have a specific routine, and when we arrive at each of their rooms, put their things away, short discussion with the staff about good night/ difficult morning/whatever and give them breakfast/snack to sit and focus on. They have always done better when they have the structure of sitting and eating when I kiss them goodbye. It provides that little bit of focus instead of ricocheting around a room of kids, some slightly hyped up and rowdy. This was particularly important during transitions when they didn't know the other kids in the room.

    Good luck!

    Posted by Mina October 24, 10 10:25 PM
  1. I have 2 children who have been in daycare since 3 months old. So some experience here. Its important to leave after you tell your child goodbye. Usually as soon as you leave they are OK. They might be sad for a few minutes, but from what I have seen when other parents leave, the kid cries for a minute more and then is fine.

    As for the comment about your child following around a caregiver with her arms outstretched - sure, MAYBE the teacher should pick your child up. But I have seen older children (as in not infants) start daycare and they are so used to being held and picked up whenever they want at home, that they need to get used to not always being held at daycare. The teacher has other children to care for, so they cant always be holding a child who wants to be held. They should however help make goodbye time easier by holding your child then. So I dont really think its definitely the teachers fault, She cant hold your child for 45 minutes and not be able to attend to the other children at that time because her arms are full.

    What has helped with my son is to have him go to a window and wave to me as I am leaving.

    Posted by Kristen October 25, 10 10:55 AM
  1. My daughter was just expelled from a daycare today. The director said she is crying too much. This is her 2nd month here, they said, "We give up." She doesn't let the other kids sleep. I know she is very active, she is very lovely child, but she has too much attachment to her parents. Any legal actions against this center or just try to find another daycare??? Thanks

    Posted by Howard Clark October 25, 10 02:24 PM
  1. Howard -- You may need professional help, but not of the legal variety. Put your focus on trying to figure out why she couldn't adjust. Is there some undiagnosed underling problem?

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz Author Profile Page October 25, 10 03:17 PM
add your comment
Required
Required (will not be published)

This blogger might want to review your comment before posting it.

About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

Submit a question for Barbara's Mailbag


Ask Barbara a question

Barbara answers questions on a wide range of topics, including autism, breastfeeding, bullying, discipline, divorce, kindergarten, potty training, sleep, tantrums, and much, much more.

Send your questions to her at:
meltzbarbara (at) gmail.com.
Please include your name and hometown.

Child in Mind

Moms
All parenting discussions
Discussions

High needs/fussy baby

memes98 writes "My 10.5 month old DS has been fussy ever since he was born, but I am getting very frustrated because I thought he would be much better by now...has anyone else been through this?"

More community voices

Child in Mind

Corner Kicks

Dirty Old Boston

Mortal Matters

On Deck

TEDx Beacon Street

RSS feed


click here to subscribe to
Child Caring

archives