Mamatoga Preschool Series: How to Cope with Separation Anxiety in Preschoolers

So, after you've finally picked the right school for your little one, found the perfect little backpack and even picked out an amazing first day outfit there you are with said little one clinging to your leg for dear life refusing to walk in and join the other kids in the carefully selected preschool classroom. A LOT of us have been there. My daughter was not a fan of preschool last year, and it was heartbreaking for me to leave her in the room crying her eyes out calling for me. There were many days where we simply didn't even attempt to go, then she would pipe up and say she wanted to go see her friends at school only to have the same reaction. I got a lot of advice from other moms and teachers, and tried almost everyone's suggestions, with mixed results. She finally came around and started enjoying being dropped off (she was always fine about five minutes after I left) right about the time that we started signing up for what to bring to the last day of school picnic, and this year she's as happy as a little clam being dropped off at preschool, but last year I really could have used a list of tips on how to deal with preschool anxiety. Most importantly, it's important to remember that separation anxiety is a completely normal stage of development. For some children this is the first time they'll be separating from their parent, and for others that may have already had some separation, it can be the new environment that causes the anxiety. Either way, these feelings, even if they seem to come out stronger than you've seen in your child before, are totally normal and can be eased by trying a few different strategies.

Here are some tips on how to help ease the anxiety:

  • Make a visit to the school before school starts, if possible, so your child  can get acquainted with their new surroundings. Meeting the teachers and knowing the lay of the land can go a long way in easing fears. It might also help to set up a playdate or two with some new classmates so your child can see some familiar faces at their new school.
  • Prepare your child for the separation. Before the first day of school, plant the suggestion that you are leaving and that your child can cope by saying, "I know you're so big now and that you'll be fine in school while I go run errands."  Tell your child what you will be doing while you're gone to reassure him that you are not leaving because you don't want to be with him anymore, but because you need to get some things done. Describe to your child what he will be doing in school and tell him in detail about the fun things he will be doing in school with his teachers and new friends.
  • Give your child a "transitional object", something from home that they can have with them for a little comfort from home. This could also be a little note or a picture you can tuck into their backpack that they can have a look at if they're feeling upset.
  • Say goodbye. This one sounds obvious, but it's an important step. Say goodbye, give your child a hug and a kiss, then leave. Don't linger, don't give one more kiss, just say bye and be off. By keeping the goodbye short and sweet, you'll show your child that you have confidence in their ability to handle preschool, but if you hover they'll sense your anxiety which will only add to theirs.
  • Don't let them see you sweat. Separation anxiety isn't only hard on the child, it's hard on you! No one wants to see their little one upset or scared, but it's important to keep a brave face and a positive attitude no matter what. We all know how sensitive and adept children can be at picking up on our feelings, so projecting an outwardly positive attitude will help them do the same.
  • Involve the teacher. Your child won't be the first (or last) one to have this issue, and preschool teachers are more than ready to help out. If it wasn't for Miss Sue and Miss Lisa last year my daughter would never have made it through. If you speak to the teacher and they are aware that your little one might need some extra attention at drop off time this can make the crucial drop off point less scary. Miss Sue would whisk Levy off to start an art project or find her favorite toy which would usually do the trick of getting her mind off saying goodbye.
  • Be honest. Talk to your child about what they are feeling and why. Ask them what makes them so upset about you dropping them off at preschool. Try sharing a story about a time that you may have felt scared or nervous about something and how you dealt with it. Talk about why going to preschool is important and how much fun they are going to have while they are there. Don't minimize their fears or concerns, instead address them while assuring them that you will always be there to pick them up at the end of school.
  • Be prepared for some regression. So you've done all these steps and you're winning the battle against separation anxiety and then poof! It's a school holiday or your child has been home sick for a few days and it comes roaring back. Don't be discouraged, it may take a little while but you can get back to the happy drop off place again with some patience and consistency.

Now, unfortunately none of these tips deal with how YOU can deal with your own separation anxiety. I usually self-medicated after dropping Levy off at preschool with a skinny vanilla latte and some retail therapy, and seeing her smiling face when I picked her up always made it all worth it. But the truth is, the transition to preschool can be a tough one for both of you, and the best thing to do is give it enough time and patience to make it also be a comfortable one. Although it may be rough at first, you can help your child learn how to feel secure at school without you and you can take heart knowing they are building self confidence skills that will help them well into their future.