Day care: Is your toddler stressed or is it separation anxiety?

My son is 22 months old and has been in day care since he was eight weeks old. He only goes two or three days a week. and has been in this day-care setting for six months and seemed to be doing fine. About two weeks ago he began screaming inconsolably and refusing to get out of the car, as well as crying when I leave him at school. He seems happy when I pick him up and when I call during the day. Is this separation anxiety or something else? I'm afraid I am missing what he is trying to tell me.


In a situation where there is a fairly sudden change in your child's behavior, it is very important to take a look and see if there have been any changes in his surroundings.

Has another child begun to bully him? Is he having any problems with naptime? Is there any difficulty with a particular caregiver, whose disciplinary technique might be different form your own? It is best to speak to the director, as well as the caregivers, to find out if any of these situations are occurring in your child's classroom.

Another important factor is how your child behaves after school. You have said that he is happy when you pick him up in the afternoon. However, is he extremely relieved to be out of the day-care situation? Does he answer yes or no when you ask him if he likes school?

If everything seems okay, as far as you can tell, and nothing is physically wrong with your son (such as a low-grade fever, which could signal the existence of an infection), then I think you should assume that you are, in fact, dealing with separation anxiety. Every child goes through it in one way or another. What can you do about it? Talk about the fact that mommies leave, but they always come back. Make sure the day-care providers are also saying this. Get the book "Are You My Mother?" by P.D. Eastman. We read it every year in our preschool classrooms, and it really seems to help. Make sure that you are spending time with your son and remind him that this is good mommy-son time, and that you will always have it.

And don't worry too much! Separation anxiety actually represents a developmental leap forward for your child. He has come to the point where he realizes that he is a separate being from you. This is why it is hard to leave you. So, although it is painful for you (because you do have to smile, kiss him, and leave) and for your son, it is a natural step in the process of growing up.

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