Strategies for Separation Anxiety at Church

It was inevitable.  If my husband or I dropped our son off in the church nursery, there would be blood curdling screaming, a clenching of every finger around our legs, and a domino effect with the other children in the room.

Our nursery workers were equipped as superheroes with patience, prayer, determination, and compassionate care, yet still the battle of separation anxiety raged on.  Our son was resolved to never leave our sight ever in his entire life.

He won that battle for months on end.  I believe he was just over two before we were able to leave him in the nursery for one hour.  So we celebrated small victories, discovered a LOT through the process, and became ever more grateful for those superheroes in the church nursery.  We also learned to empathize with parents going through similar stages with their own children.  It can be a hard fought battle for everyone involved.

As I’m writing this, the little man is delighted to be sleeping over at his grandparents for the evening; a feat that we would have never deemed possible a year ago.  Now that we are on the other side of separation anxiety, we can provide some strategies for others.  Included here are tips for nursery workers and parents dealing with this very real early childhood fear.  Hopefully they will provide the support needed to get through this tough phase.

Strategies for Parents to Utilize:

1.  Schedule brief periods of separation with a trusted family member or close friend to allow your child to develop ease in your absence and trust that you will return.

2.  Ensure that your child is well rested, healthy, and fed prior to the church service.

3.  Stay calm and assured during the separation.  Since children naturally absorb insecurities, remain confident in your child and in the nursery workers’ care.

4.  Do not sneak out of the room, but do leave in a timely manner.  Belaboring the process accentuates emotions.

5.  Develop a special goodbye routine.  It could be a silly tickle, a high five, a hug, kisses in the hand to keep, kisses thrown in the air to catch, or a favorite phrase such as “Goodbye Crocodile” and “See you later Alligator.”  Say goodbye in this way on a regular basis.

6.  Realize that this is a natural developmental phase.

7.  Pray for your child before the separation and throughout the church service.

8.  Celebrate small victories and encourage your child in love.

Strategies for Nursery Workers to Utilize:

1.  Be familiar with early childhood separation anxiety.

2.  Create an aesthetically pleasing environment that welcomes babies and toddlers.  Within the room, provide a quiet corner that is calm and inviting for children who prefer to observe rather than participate.

3.  Greet the parents and children warmly.  Crouch down and speak to children on their level.

4.  Establish predictability in the nursery and a regular schedule of events.

5.  Prepare for transitions with songs, picture cards, finger plays, clear directions, prayer, etc.

6.  Allow children to assert independence and control with small choices.

7.  Ensure that the parent can be contacted during the service if necessary.  Establish a limit to the crying that the parent is in agreement with.

8.  Support parents with prayer, encouragement, and sensitivity.  Above all, be a voice of compassion.

Need More Ideas? Check out this great article on Sojourn Kids with help for Separation Anxiety at Church.


Comments

  1. Joy says

    I wonder if anyone has tried any form of what I would call a treasure hunt? When my little sister was small and I had to leave to go back to college,the separation was dreadful – for both of us! I came up with the idea of leaving her with a treasure hunt in place. When it came time to leave, I placed the first clue in her hand – a picture of the first place she needed to look. When I got back to the college, I called and found out the results. She cried until Mom lead her by the hand to the clue on the paper, where she found the next one, and the next one, until they got to the prize. By the time I left from the next visit, she was asking me when I was going to leave – 3 days early!
    It might be possible to come up with a simple version of this for little ones – Mom could hand them a piece of paper with a picture of a hiding place in the room – depending on the child’s age, there might be more than one clue, but it would end in a prize, or a snack. The mother might need to stay the first time this was done, and might be able to ease out earlier in the hunt as time progressed, but if a worker went with the child through the hunt, the transition would be made in the child’s mind – Mom leaves me a clue, and Mom leaves, but that means I get a reward – which means Mom is the giver of the reward, so she love me. It might even be one of the child’s favorite toys from home. Who knows? We are a new church, just getting ready to start a children’s ministry, so I’d like to know if anyone has tried anything similar.

  2. says

    Stephen,

    Thank you for including additional practical suggestions! And for clarifying that separation anxiety can extend past the early childhood years. Much appreciated!

  3. says

    Separation anxiety can be a major issue with older kids as well. If your church has separate programming for children and youth, a big red flag for separation anxiety is a kid in the adult worship service week after week with parents who are regular attenders.

    Good preparation can be very helpful when families of kids with separation anxiety are interested in checking out church. Giving the child and the parents an opportunity to tour the children’s ministry areas prior to their first visit is often helpful. Pictures or video of what the child is likely to experience can help.

    Connecting kids with a friend from school they recognize might also help.

    Families will frequently arrive “unannounced” on Sunday morning in the church lobby. Having a quiet place available near the lobby to help the child (and parents) become more composed while a volunteer or staff lends support keeps situations from snowballing, because the sense of being on display in a public place frequently intensifies the child’s emotional reactions.

  4. says

    Christiane,

    Thank you for sharing! That glass partition at your church sounds like a perfect place to go with your little ones if they are disruptive. How nice that your facility has that for parents!

    Brenna,

    That is very true. Sometimes the phase extends through the early childhood years. And, I should add, sometimes it is a deeper issue that needs resolved through outside intervention and counseling. Thank you for adding a strategy that has been helpful for you with the goodbye wave. And that quick redirection is always good too. Thanks for commenting:)

  5. says

    Great list of suggestions and much needed tips. I might add that these tips are not only useful at church but at early childhood centers, too. Separation anxiety carries into the 3′s, 4′s, and some young 5′s at school. These children often have early and long days. One thing that helps with them is to watch mom walk down the hallway until she gets to the door for one final bye-bye wave to last throughout the day. Children are soon redirected to interesting activities in the classroom and all is well.

  6. Christiane says

    In my Church, we bring our infants with us, carried in our arms, even as newborns. There are no nurseries. When we go up to Communion, the little ones in our arms are blessed. If the babies are crying, there is a glass-partition that a parent and child can go into, so that they can still see and hear; and they can be seen, but not ‘heard’.

    As the children are raised, they come with us and sit with us. They get used to it. But the ‘atmosphere’ of our service is peaceful, and I think that they ‘understand’ that, in their way. :)

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