Teaching Babies, Ones, and Twos: Separation Anxiety

Crying baby

You see his lips quiver and his eyes well up with tears. This 9-month-old has never cried before when his parents brought him to the baby room at church. All of a sudden, he bursts into tears when his mom hands him into your arms. You recognize that he is going through separation anxiety. This is a tough stage for the preschooler to go through, but it marks another milestone in his mental development which also has an impact on spiritual development.

Separation anxiety starts in babies at about 8–10 months old when their main caregivers leave them in the care of another. They begin to cry when Mommy or Daddy take them to day care or the church nursery. There is also a time in the toddler years, approximately 18–24 months, when separation anxiety becomes an issue again. Many ones and twos go through this time of tears as parents leave them in the care of others at church.

Younger preschoolers develop separation anxiety after they have developed object permanence.

They know that people, as well as objects, still exist even when I don’t see them. Babies or toddlers are gaining independence, and they realize that they are a separate person from their mother or father. This realization that they are independent from their parents becomes frightening to them when the parent leaves them at church or day care.

Where does separation anxiety fit in with the preschooler’s spiritual development? Going through separation anxiety as a preschooler sets a mental process in place that is needed for salvation later in life. For faith in Christ, a person has to realize that he is accountable for his own sin and the decision to follow Christ. He is independent from others, and must believe in Christ for himself. The Scripture says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23–24 NIV1). Even if a person has grown up in church or with Christian parents, he cannot rely on the faith of others for his own salvation. When a preschooler goes through separation anxiety, the mental process begins in realizing he is separate from other persons.

The stage of separation anxiety brings tears to the preschooler, but also is difficult for the parent when leaving their preschooler in your care. As teachers at church, we can help preschoolers and parents with this transition time.

  • ŸKeep the transition from home to church sweet and upbeat. Encourage parents to keep it short and be positive with their preschooler.

  • Talk with the parents about a drop-off procedure.

  • Encourage parents to develop a drop-off ritual with their preschooler. Something short that they always do, such as two kisses on the hand or a special good-bye phrase.

  • Ask the parent to bring a family photo that you can keep in the room at church. Place the photo in a baby’s crib or place it in a plastic sleeve for a toddler to hold during the session.

  • Involve the preschooler in an activity as soon as he arrives. Have a rattle or other baby toy ready to give a baby to hold. For toddlers, provide an activity near the door that will help engage him. Sometimes it comforts a preschooler to hold a doll or blanket. Take a toddler’s hand and walk around the room singing, “Walk around the room with me,” to a tune you make up.

  • Reassure the preschooler that his parent will be back. At church say, “Mommy is in church,” or “Daddy is learning about Jesus in his class. He will come back when his class is finished.”

  • Sometimes a preschooler cries when other parents start to pick up their preschoolers. Keep the preschooler close to you, and reassure him that his parent will come back.

  • Pray for the preschooler, and pray that you will be able to comfort him and be an example of God’s loving care.

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1. Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 2011 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission of Zondervan.

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