How do they grow so fast?! One day they are teeny tiny and the next they are becoming their own person, getting ready to venture further into the world-preschool, play dates, prom… (Ha!) Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Separation anxiety is hard for everyone but in most cases it’s a short-lived and easily fixable problem. Let’s help that kiddo of yours venture out and see the world!
Separation anxiety is most commonly seen in toddler and preschool aged children (it can be seen at other times however, especially if a child is entering into a school or care situation a little later, or if there has been a event that has created some uncertainty for the child). This is not the same as “stranger danger” that we usually see earlier on. We usually see separation anxiety for the first time when your child is away from you for an extended period of time due to expected things, such as attending school/childcare or a parent returning to work. For military families, here is a great resource. If something else has occurred causing the separation such as a removal by child services, incarceration, major medical issue, or other type of stressful loss I highly recommend seeking therapy for your child and family as there is a lot more that your child will need.
So what exactly is it? In a nutshell, separation anxiety is distress at the thought of or during the process of leaving you. Some children cry, cling, tantrum. Some shut down and are difficult to re-engage. It’s hard as a parent because, well, you feel bad. “They wouldn’t be doing this if I weren’t leaving them, so I must be doing something wrong!” You’re not. They need to do this, it’s crucial to their development. Just remember, your kiddo doesn’t know how to be away from you, it’s a skill they have to learn. Any skill takes patience and time. Here are my tips for helping kiddos who struggle to separate.
~ No matter your child’s temperament, it’s helpful for them to know what to expect. Before they start a new school or childcare, ask to take your child there to “tour” and meet their teacher. They look to you to know what’s safe. Explore the space with them and find things they like. This will help with the next step.
~ Talk it up! Beforehand, talk to your child about how much fun their new place will be. Highlight the toys and activities they saw that they will be able to do. Remind them about their teacher and how great they are. Children generally do better in a new situation if they are already connected to an adult. This will help them feel safer and know there is a person whom you approve of who will be there for them. Remind them how much you love them, and how much you’ll be thinking of them too. “The Kissing Hand” is a great book for illustrating this.
~ If your child needs extra encouragement, find things that make this experience even sweeter. Do they get to wear their new awesome shoes when they go to school? Do they get extra time in the car with mom and dad? Did mom or dad get more done during the day so now there is more time to play? Another thing to keep in mind-they might need more special time with you if they are struggling to adjust. This helps them to “reset”.
~ Plan to have a “transitional” item ready to go (check first to see what’s allowed). This may be a stuffed animal, or a blanket. It may be something of yours that smells like you. It may be a picture of the family that they can put in their cubby. If they can’t bring a physical item with them, is there a song or story they like that the teachers can incorporate? Transitional items help kids feel more tethered throughout the day to what’s familiar. Some kids are more “out of sight, out of mind” but this is a great technique if your kid just needs a little more “you” while you’re away!
~ Ok. Now for the drop off. Remain calm and warm. If your child is upset, pick a comforting phrase to repeat (for example, “I know you feel scared because this is new. Your teacher can help you”. “I love you so much. You will play and I will see you after”.) Remind them that you will be there to pick them up after all the fun things they get to do. Do not negotiate or bribe. Do not sneak away. Walk (or carry) them into the room. Give them a big hug and remind them of how proud you are of them for going to “school”. Do not linger, unless directly instructed to by staff. Teachers and care workers have seen this a bazillion times and got it from here. Gently pull away and keep going. Breathe. Manage your own big feelings. You will both be ok. I’m certainly proud of you.