Easing your preschooler’s separation anxiety

Some preschoolers kiss their parents goodbye on the first day of preschool and never look back. Other kids scream and cry and cling when it’s time for their parents or caregivers to go. These dramatic goodbyes can be emotionally grueling for both the children and the parents.

What is separation anxiety?

It’s perfectly normal: Many kids experience separation anxiety at certain times in their lives.

Separation anxiety usually doesn’t last: Often a child will become distracted by an activity almost as soon as their parents leave the room and forget about his or her distress, though the tears may return when the parent does and the child is reminded that the parent left.

It’s often better to leave: If you linger forever in the classroom or come running back in every time your child howls, you’ll prolong the cycle. As brutal as it may feel, at a certain point, you have to go.

Coping with separation anxiety

Prepare: As mentioned earlier, if your child tends to freak out in new places or with new people, try to make preschool as familiar as possible before the first day. Bring your child for a visit to the school or classroom. Introduce him or her to the preschool teacher or, if at all possible, other children who may be in your child’s class. Prepare your child for separating from you by leaving him or her with a trusted relative or caregiver for a few hours in the weeks leading up to the beginning of preschool so that he or she gets the idea that when you leave, you’ll come back.

Don’t start at a disadvantage: Make sure your child gets enough sleep the night before school and has had a good, healthy breakfast. No one’s at their best when they’re tired or hungry.

Try to project calmness and confidence: You may be melting with every whimper and panicking with every howl, but try to hold it together. Your child will take comfort in your sense of calm and control. Aim for consistency and loving firmness when it comes to saying goodbye: a hug, a kiss, a wish for a good day, a reassuring reminder that you’ll be back to pick him or her up at the end of preschool. Then walk out the door.

Be honest and dependable: Don’t ask someone to distract your child and then sneak out while he or she is not looking; that’s a recipe for more anxiety on your child’s part. And be prompt at preschool pickup, returning when you say you will. It’s essential that your child knows you’re true to your word and can be trusted. If someone else will be picking up your child – a relative, a friend, a sitter – be clear with your child in advance so that he’s not surprised and disappointed when you don’t show.

For most kids, separation anxiety passes pretty quickly. But if your child’s anxiety is particularly intense or long-lasting, ascertain if something is going on in the preschool to upset your child. If the anxiety does not seem to be a response to actual circumstances – if your child has panic attacks, nightmares, or extreme fears or worries about being separated from you – your child may have separation anxiety disorder. In that case, or if you’re simply concerned, talk to your doctor.

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