Separation anxiety can challenge parents and children at church drop-off time. Several factors play into why this is so difficult. A typical cause of separation anxiety is when a family visits a new church and feels overwhelmed by the experience. Often, being in an entirely new place with all new people is enough to make a child feel insecure. Sometimes, parents' nervousness about drop-off can be sensed by their children, causing them to become anxious as well. Other times, it is unclear why a kid feels anxious on a particular day.
The causes of separation anxiety can be for any number of reasons. However, in situations where a parent decides to drop off their child, despite the difficulty, the children's ministry has the opportunity to intervene and provide support to both the parents and children. There are ways to make this transition as smooth and painless as possible. Below are the seven best ways to reduce separation anxiety in children's ministry.
1. Limit Waiting Time
Stop standing around! I don't mean you necessarily, but the kids! Keep them busy. During drop-off time, if kids are waiting around for things to start, there is more potential for separation anxiety. Kids who don't see anything exciting or fun to do will be more likely to cling to their parents. If a fun game or activity is going on while children are dropped off, they will be more likely to want to join in with the group.
Some fun activities include having toys, books, puzzles, or building blocks set up for kids to play with when they arrive. These work well for preschool ages. For elementary age, have a game of heads-up seven up going or cover a table with bulletin board paper and allow the kids to draw together while they wait. If kids are dropped off in a large group setting, begin worship music early with hand motions to give kids a way to participate.
2. Provide Friendship
Children warm up quicker to their new surroundings when they feel genuinely welcomed. Depending on the child's age and the group size, you can determine who would be their "buddy." For very young children, especially nursery and preschool-aged, you will want an adult volunteer to be their new friend, encouraging, talking to, and sitting next to them during the service. For older preschoolers and elementary-aged children, assigning a peer buddy to help out is often best. Some of the best helpers are the students who struggle to sit still or pay attention. Usually, giving these students something specific to do gives them purpose and completely changes their attitude about being in church. These students make great buddies and helpers. Helping you will make them feel special and make the new kid feel like they have an instant friend.
3. Encourage the Parents
A parent may feel unnecessarily guilty for dropping their child off if their child is in distress. These feelings are natural and might be difficult for them. Use encouraging phrases such as:
- "We are so happy (child's name) is here!"
- "We will have so much fun today (and share one fun thing you will be doing)."
- "We will be sure to assign a buddy to your child so that they will feel included."
Once the parent returns for pick up, mention some fun things their child participated in. Invite the family to join you again next week.
4. Design a Drop-Off System
You can save a lot of long, drawn-out drop-offs by having a well-designed system in place. The longer the parents are there, the more difficult it becomes for the children, parents, and ministry volunteers. Keeping the parents outside of the classroom is ideal. Drop-off works best at the doorway. Doing this makes it more difficult for kids to cling to their parents if their parents are not allowed to go in. It is best to keep a consistent drop-off system that clearly shows the kids that this is where parents leave, and they come back to pick them up.
5. Get Contact Information
All children in your ministry should have a child information sheet their parents fill out. This sheet should include contact information for the parent in case of an emergency. If you have a marked welcome area at the entrance, new families should register their children before dropping them off. Provide a sticker with a randomly generated ID number for the kid and the parent to confirm identity at pickup. Parents will feel more comfortable knowing you can call or text for emergencies and that you're taking extra precautions to ensure safety at all times. Doing this could help them with the process of dropping off and dissipate much of their anxiety.
6. Acknowledge Feelings
Sometimes, we are tempted to control kids' emotions and feelings. Avoid saying things like "Don't cry" and "You are okay" and instead try "I'm sorry you feel sad. Why don't we try playing…." Or "Your parents will be back to pick you up later. Would you like to ….?"
Acknowledging how the child feels makes them feel seen and heard. Showing them that you care and that there is a reason they are there can help redirect their emotions to something new and more positive. Doing this allows the child to build trust with you.
7. Invite Parents to Return Early
Have you ever been last to be picked up? If you've been going to Sunday school all year, this might not be a big deal, but imagine being the new kid and your parent picking you up last. This may only add to the child's anxiety. Invite parents with a challenging drop-off time to arrive 5 minutes early for pickup. This will help them to be the first in line and show their child that "they will always come back ."It also lets you talk to the new parents and get to know them.
There is a healthy level of separation anxiety that occurs when parents drop off their children. The bond between a parent and their child is beautiful, and it's beneficial to acknowledge it and comfort children by letting them know their parents will return. These seven ideas can help reduce the length and severity of their separation anxiety. They are tools for helping the child adjust to a new environment and new positive relationships.
As these relationships form, kids become less anxious and more open to learning and growing in children's ministry. Parents will also benefit from a healthy separation time as they join the main service or an adult class. Every child is different, and some may adjust faster than others. But remember, sometimes just a little space and time is what children need to adapt and to get to know their new friends. Patience is the key.