The New Preschool Parent's Guide to Separation Anxiety

Nia Hendricks
A new milestone is on the horizon—preschool! You're excited but you're also having visions of your 3-year old kicking and screaming on the classroom floor. Learn more about how to help your child cope with separation anxiety.

It seems like just yesterday you were holding your wrinkly sweet pea of a newborn baby in your arms. And now you’ve found yourself here. Halfway through the summer, picking out a tiny Paw Patrol backpack, preparing for preschool. Perhaps, like many parents, you’re feeling a little nervous about the whole thing, especially at the thought of saying goodbye to your little person for part of the day. You may be worrying, what if my child flips out when I drop him off? What if he has separation anxiety? Yes, separation anxiety is real. But be encouraged. We’re here to tell you that though there could be tears at first—on both ends—your child will adjust in time and so will you!
Somewhat ironically, anxiety can be a sign of the child's increasing autonomy.

Know this—it’s completely normal for young children to experience separation anxiety. No, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your child. No, you didn’t shelter them too much. No, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. And no, you’re not abandoning them, despite what your own anxiety may be telling you! “Children often experience separation anxiety during their first few weeks—or more—of school,” says Jan Lashbrook, Early Childhood Director at Calvary Christian Academy. Even some of the most outgoing children can have a bout of separation anxiety when they start preschool. That’s because it’s a completely new experience in a completely new environment.

Separation anxiety actually shows that there is a strong attachment between you and your child. “Somewhat ironically, anxiety can be a sign of the child's increasing autonomy," says Miranda Goodman-Wilson, assistant professor of psychology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. “They have their own opinion on the situation—that Mom [or Dad] shouldn't leave—and want to exert control." So, that’s something to celebrate! Even though it may be a little tough on your heart. It’s a normal part of child development and shouldn’t last more than a couple weeks. Here are a few things you can do to help you and your child cope with the adjustment.

Start talking about it, early.

Rationalize with your child as much and as often as you can, beforehand. Talk about how he will spend a little bit of time each day apart from you exploring, making new friends, and learning. Tell stories about what recess will be like and the kind of fun things he’ll get to do. This may help ease the shock (for the both of you) when the first day rolls around.

Bring the blankie.

Pack a soother for the first few weeks of school. This can be anything familiar that will put them at ease—a special toy, family photograph, or a blanket for example. Tell your child to hold onto their blanket whenever they feel scared or sad. As they become more comfortable and distracted by new friends and experiences, they will likely need it less and less.

Don’t sneak away.

Instead of trying to sneak out of class when you drop them off in the morning, develop a goodbye routine. Come up with a special saying or a handshake, something that signals you’re leaving but will be back soon. You can take after Crush and Squirt from Finding Nemo and tell your little one, “Give me some fin. Noggin. Duuuude.” Whatever routine you settle on, start practicing it every time you leave them with a sitter so that it becomes a habit. It may even become a ritual your little squirt looks forward to!

You may even be surprised to find that you have a harder time with the transition than your little one. Who knows! Your toddler may relish the independence and take off running the first day, and you’ll be the one left to cope with the separation. Isn’t parenting just wild? If you find yourself having second thoughts, remind yourself of all the reasons this will be beneficial for your child and your family.

“For some children [preschool] may be the first time they're going into a group setting where the attention by caregivers will be divided among several children. Learning to share the relationship to the teacher will be a major new gain. Also, the child will be learning to make friends, share, take turns, and hold back on impulses, areas in which they're still making progress. Preschool will present them with more opportunities to practice these skills,” says child psychiatrist and co-author of Touchpoints 3 to 6, Joshua Sparrow. Rest assured, your child will start to look forward to preschool in time. And you’ll be amazed at all the things they’ll learn to do and the many ways their personality begins to blossom!


 

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