Surviving Separation Anxiety
The start of a new school year is upon us, and with it so many emotions. For caregivers, there’s a mix of sadness at the end of another childhood summer with your littles and pure relief for some routine at the same time. For kids, the feelings can be a little more intense. Of course, excitement is typically there for all the fun things school has to offer, but there can also be anxiety, nervousness and fear. This is especially true for those entering preschool and kindergarten for the first time.
Although it’s fun to embark on a new adventure, and many preschoolers delight in the feeling of being “big,” change can be scary for little ones (and their worried parents). While a highly orchestrated morning routine might get you and your little one out the door on time, that final goodbye can leave even the most upbeat preschooler in a puddle of tears. Preschool parking lots are packed with tearful parents afraid to put their cars in reverse for good reason: separation is hard.
It’s only natural for kids to feel anxious when saying goodbye to their parents. In fact, separation anxiety is a normal part of child development. It can begin before the first birthday and pop up again (multiple times) until age four, and sometimes even into elementary school. It can even begin later in the school year. Some kids seem to be doing just fine with the transition only to experience separation anxiety a few weeks into the school year.
Crying, tantrums and clinginess are all common symptoms of preschoolers struggling with separation anxiety. Parents should also be on the lookout for signs of regressed behavior. Try not to worry too much if your recently potty trained preschooler suddenly fails to make it to the bathroom on time. When a child is challenged by a new developmental task, he is likely to temporarily lose ground in an area recently mastered.
As you prepare to drop your child off at preschool, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends trying these strategies to help your child cope with separation anxiety:
Create quick good-bye rituals.
Creating a specific goodbye ritual prior to the first day of school can ease some of the anxiety about that final goodbye. Try one (or more) of these ideas:
- Develop a special handshake or special wave.
- Hug, kiss, high five and goodbye!
- Tuck a transitional object (i.e. a wishing stone, a small photo or a special charm) in your child’s backpack and fill it with love before you drop off your child each day.
- Love notes in the lunch box remind kids that parents love them and will return soon.
Try to do the same drop-off with the same ritual at the same time each day you separate to avoid unexpected factors whenever you can. A routine can diminish the heartache and will allow your child to simultaneously build trust in her independence and in you.
When separating, give your child full attention, be loving, and provide affection. Then say good-bye quickly despite her antics or cries for you to stay.
Practice being apart.
Have your child practice separation by staying with a grandparent, schedule playdates, allow friends and family to provide childcare for you (even for an hour) on the weekend.
It’s rare that separation anxiety persists on a daily basis after the preschool years. If you’re concerned that your child isn’t adapting to being without you, chat with your pediatrician. Your pediatrician has certainly helped support families in the same situation and can help calm your unease and determine a plan to support both of you!