Preschool separation anxiety can be heartrending for parents, leaving them feeling powerless to soothe their kids' fears. Don't worry, though, there are things you can do to ease your child's mind and make the transition smooth and relatively painfree.
Causes of Preschool Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety, though stressful, is a normal part of child development. Just as babies go through stages of fear and anxiety, so do older kids. Although typical separation anxiety generally disappears between ages two and three, it is normal for a child to be nervous about being in a new situation with unfamiliar people. If your child is fearful about being away from home and family for the first time, this just means she has formed a strong, healthy attachment. Children many experience temporary anxiety in the following situations:
- Being in a new daycare situation
- Starting school
- Going to sleepovers or playdates without parents
- Going to camp
If your child suddenly develops separation anxiety in an already familiar environment, that could be cause for concern. If, for example, your child previously enjoyed her preschool class, but suddenly acts fearful and clingy at the prospect of going, that is something you need to investigate. While this could still be a normal part of development, it could also be a sign that your child is suddenly unhappy at school or daycare. In this case, it is important to find out if your child is afraid of a particular person, which could be a sign of child abuse, or is having some other problem away from home. Assuming she isn't being abused, neglected, or bullied, there are things you can do to ease her anxiety.
Many children are afraid of being abandoned. For a lot of preschoolers, the greatest fear is that their beloved adults will suddenly disappear. It is important for your preschooler to realize that you will always come back for her. When you drop her off, tell her exactly when you'll return. If she has no concept of time, you can say something like, "I'll be back after naptime." After a few days, she will come to trust that you really will pick her up each and every day.
It is also important to make sure that she is well-rested and well-nourished. When a child is sleepy, hungry, and cranky, all other anxieties are naturally heightened. Your child should have a good night's sleep and a nourishing breakfast prior to being dropped off.
Prepare for Separation
If possible, prepare your child ahead of time by taking her to visit the new environment. Let her talk to teachers, babysitters, or other caregivers. If she can spend some time in the daycare or school before her official start day, that can go a long way towards easing anxiety. Spending time with the other kids and seeing that they are enjoying themselves can help her understand that this is a positive change.
Other Ways to Help
Here are other things you can do to ease separation anxiety:
- Reward your child for tantrum-free drop-offs
- Do not punish, ridicule, or discipline your child for her fear
- Do not get emotional at drop-off time
- If the daycare or preschool allows, let your child take a special item from home
- Do not reward the tantrums by giving excessive attention or affection
- Keep good-byes short and simple
When to Worry
Although a short period of anxiety is perfectly normal, it can be taken to extremes. If you find that your child's anxiety hasn't lessened after a couple of weeks, that can be cause for concern. Ask the teacher how long the crying spells last. If the tears dry up within minutes of your departure, your child is likely fine. Some kids continue to cry for a few minutes at good-bye all the way through kindergarten. If, however, your child remains at a high level of upset for most of the day, that could signal a more serious situation.