I have those Sundays where everything seems magically calm, and I’ve had those difficult Sundays where every teacher joked “It must be a full moon this weekend.” Well moon or no moon, it is not always easy for young children to be away from their parents.
In my last post, I took a look at how parents could help ease separation anxiety (see “Six Ways Parents Can Ease Separation Anxiety"). But this week, I want to focus on some ways that Sunday school teachers and nursery workers can help alleviate it.
Most children will go through a stage of separation anxiety, typically peaking anywhere from 8–24 months. Sometimes older toddlers will experience this as well, especially if they haven’t had the opportunity to spend much time away from their parents. Generally speaking, though, it tends to decrease between the ages of 2–4 (see “Separation Anxiety” by Dr. Sue Hubbard).
One of the best things you can do is be prepared and (1) realize this is a normal stage in development. It is not a poor reflection on parenting skills, nor does it automatically mean that something is wrong with the child. If you are not familiar with separation anxiety, do a little reading on it. If you are a children’s pastor or director, provide your staff with a couple of articles to read on the topic.
(2) Put yourself in the parents’ shoes. If you have children of your own, it may be easier to relate. If you don’t have children, realize that it is often not an easy thing for a parent to leave a child temporarily. Nowadays, many pediatricians are advising parents to wait longer before dropping off their babies in childcare and to be extra cautious. Several questions are probably running through the parents’ head: Are there enough workers? Has the equipment been checked for recalls? Is everything baby proof? Are all the toys disinfected? What if my baby cries the whole time I am gone?
Be patient and understanding. Let them know that you will come and get them if their child does not stop crying after 10–15 minutes (or an agreed upon amount of time). It can also be helpful to give the parents a copy of a 1–2 page document with nursery procedures. When we make sure to communicate clearly with our parents, it lets them know that we care about them and their children.
In addition, make sure to (3) create a welcoming environment. Give each child a warm smile, and crouch down on their eye level. If they are having a hard time saying good bye, find a fun toy that you think the child might like. Additionally, the room as a whole should appeal to children and parents. Think clean, fun, and colorful (for ideas on decorating a nursery see “Does Your Church Nursery Make a Good First Impression?” and “How to Decorate a Church Nursery”).
(4) Develop a routine. Having an established schedule will help children feel more comfortable. They are too young to understand specifics about the concept of time, but they can understand that things happen in set patterns. For example, their time might begin with a puppet or a familiar song during the welcome time. They’ll also begin to learn that after a certain event happens (such as snack time or story time) their parents will return.
Following these steps will not automatically take away all separation anxiety, but it will go a long way toward make those times of separation easier for both parents and children.
Do you know of a church that handles separation anxiety well? What did you like (or dislike) about what they did?