Tips for Handling Your Young Child’s Separation Anxiety

It’s back-to-school season.  The stores are filled with fall clothes, backpacks and lunchboxes.  Parents are busy gathering all of the things their children will need.  They also have the important task of helping their children to adjust to a new school year. Parents bringing their children to preschool or kindergarten often worry about both how their young child will react and how they will feel if their child tries to cling to them. Here are some hints for getting through separation anxiety:

Know that being anxious in a new setting is a normal human response.  If this is your child’s first time being dropped off or the first day in a school setting, anxiety about the unknown is a reasonable emotion.  Imagine being brought to a room where you know no one, do not know what will happen and people tell you, “Have fun!” Most adults do not enjoy attending events alone and entering a room full of strangers. Why would children be any less uncomfortable? Even children who have been to a school setting will encounter new teachers, different classmates and a new room. Some children simply find all of this “new” in their lives scary and overwhelming.  It doesn’t mean that they won’t adjust. 

Remember that separation anxiety is a common experience that can start and reoccur anytime during the early childhood years.   Separation anxiety is not only normal but is your child’s first opportunity to deal with fear and coping.  It is a healthy learning experience.  It can start on the first day of school or any time after that.  Some parents and children slide through the first few weeks of school anxiety free just to find that their children suddenly don’t want to leave them in October.   Some children start preschool at age 2 or 3 years old and become clingy the following year.  Children cannot express the cause of their increasing and waning emotions.  If you trust the adults who will care for them and the environment is positive and supportive, help your children to know that their feelings are acceptable and normal and they can bravely get through the day.

“School” is an abstract and unfamiliar concept to young children.  Visit with your children before the year begins so they know where they will be going.  Many schools will have an opportunity for your children to meet their teachers.  If there is no formal opportunity to do so, ask when you might stop by.  Visiting will give your child a frame of reference when you use that mysterious new word – school.

Talk about school by using positive words.  When you talk about school starting with your young child, the conversation should center on how the children will play, have fun, make friends and other happy experiences.   Do not prepare your child for being scared by mentioning crying or fear.  When a parent says, “There isn’t anything to be afraid of” many preschoolers will feel fear instead of happiness.  When we say, “Don’t cry,” they may be more apt to do so because… well… the adults are thinking there might be tears so maybe there is some reason to cry. 

And yet… don’t over-talk it.  Many parents have asked me when they should start talking to their children about school starting.  My advice is always that buying new items for school is exciting but talking about the actual event – the first days – is scary.  Save any discussion of school starting soon for a day or two before it begins. Simply put, adults tend to talk too much.  We think we are making them feel better when really we are creating anticipatory anxiety.  As a parent, I have sometimes had to admit that my need to talk about upcoming events in my children’s lives was more about my need and my anxiety than what would be the best strategy for them. 

Tell your child what you will be doing while he/she is at school.  Young children cannot imagine where you go when they are not with you.  It will help them to know what to expect and where you will be spending your time.  It is a good idea to explain to your preschooler that you will be saying good-bye and then going to work, shopping, etc.  When dropping your child off, repeat where you are going within earshot of your child’s teacher.  If you say, “I am going to work” or “I am going food shopping” in front of the staff, it enables them to tell your child the same thing that you’ve told him/her.

Avoid sneaking away at drop off.  Part of getting over separation anxiety has to do with trust.  Your child needs to trust you as well as their preschool teachers.  It is just as appropriate to say good-bye to a crying child as a smiling child.  The key is for the parents to smile throughout the experience.  If parents look sad or anxious, the child’s fears will be exacerbated.  They take their cues from you.

Keep your good-bye short, happy and do not linger.  Smile at your child even though he/she may be crying, say good-bye and leave.  If you linger, the message that you give to your child is that you don’t think he/she will be alright.  If you leave, you give the message that you are confident in the teacher and in your child’s ability to adapt.  Which message do you want to send?  Do you want your children to get a message that you believe in them or do you want them to get the message that you don’t think they can survive it.  If you want to send a message of confidence and capability, you have to leave.  Most preschools have a place where you can wait out of sight to find out if your child is calming down.  When you leave (and you do need to leave the building at some point), do not hesitate to call the school to find out how your child is doing.  Your child’s preschool staff should recognize that just because you physically leave your child, it doesn’t mean that you have emotionally left.  You are entitled to know how your child is doing at any point during any day.

Keep in mind that children cannot measure time like an adult and the statement “I will be back later” is meaningless to them.  Young children do not have a sense of time.  They measure time by activities.  Ask your child’s preschool for a sample schedule of the day.  Children will easily learn that their important adult returns after they play, have snack, go outside, listen to a story and do art.  Ensure that your child’s teacher has a fairly predictable routine.  The teacher should remind the children of the day’s activities that will lead up to your return.  In no time, many children will be able to recite the routine of their day.  That predictability gives your child the security of knowing when to expect you.  If they cannot predict your return, the day can seem endless.  When leaving say something that is absolutely true and concrete – and time words are abstract.  Say, “I will see you when I get back” or “Grandma will see you when she gets here.” 

Some children are less anxious quickly while others may take more time.  It is important to work in partnership with your school director or principal and classroom teacher to help your child feel comfortable, gain confidence and move beyond their separation anxiety.

For information for parents who are surprised by their child's lack of separation anxiety, read my follow up article -

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