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Dealing With Your Preschooler's Separation Anxiety

Prepare for a new school year with tips for coping with your preschooler’s separation anxiety.

It’s almost back-to-school preparation time. There are backpacks to buy and clothes to select. Parents also have the important task of helping their children to adjust to a new school year. Facing a new experience can be daunting for children as well as adults. Parents bringing their children to preschool or kindergarten often worry about both how their young child will react and how they will feel if their child tries to cling to them. Here are some hints for getting through separation anxiety:

Remember  that separation anxiety is a common experience that can start and reoccur anytime during the early childhood years. Separation anxiety is not only normal but is your child’s first opportunity to deal with fear and coping. It is a healthy learning experience. It can start on the first day of school or any time after that. Some parents and children slide through the first few weeks of school anxiety free just to find that their children suddenly don’t want to leave them in October. Some children start preschool at age 2 or 3 years old and become clingy the following year. 

“School” is an abstract and unfamiliar concept to young children. Visit with your children before the year begins so they know where they will be going. Many schools will have an opportunity for your children to meet their teachers. If there is no formal opportunity to do so, ask when you might stop by. Visiting will give your child a frame of reference when you use that mysterious new word – school.

Talk about school by using positive words. When you talk about school starting with your young child, the conversation should center on how the children will play, have fun, make friends and other happy experiences. Do not prepare your child for being scared by mentioning crying or fear. When a parent says, “There isn’t anything to be afraid of” many preschoolers will feel fear instead of happiness. When we say, “Don’t cry,” they will be more apt to do so because they are thinking about it. 

Tell your child what you will be doing while he/she is at school. Young children cannot imagine where you go when they are not with you. It will help them to know what to expect and where you will be spending your time. It is a good idea to explain to your preschooler that you will be saying good-bye and then going to work, shopping, etc. When dropping your child off, repeat where you are going within earshot of your child’s teacher. If you say, “I am going to work” or “I am going food shopping” in front of the staff, it enables them to tell your child the same thing that you’ve told him/her.

Avoid sneaking away at drop off. Part of getting over separation anxiety has to do with trust. Your child needs to trust you as well as their preschool teachers. It is just as appropriate to say good-bye to a crying child as a smiling child. The key is for the parents to smile throughout the experience. If parents look sad or anxious, the child’s fears will be exacerbated. They take their cues from you.

Keep your good-bye short, happy and do not linger. Smile at your child even though he/she may be crying, say good-bye and leave. If you linger, the message that you give to your child is that you don’t think he/she will be alright. If you leave, you give the message that you are confident in the teacher and in your child’s ability to adapt. Most preschools have a place where you can wait out of sight to find out if your child is calming down. When you leave (and you do need to leave at some point), do not hesitate to call the school to find out how your child is doing. Your child’s preschool staff should recognize that just because you physically leave your child, it doesn’t mean that you have emotionally left. You are entitled to know how your child is doing at any point during any day.

Keep in mind that children cannot measure time like an adult and the statement “I will be back later” is meaningless to them. Young children . They measure time by activities. Ask your child’s preschool for a sample schedule of the day. Children will easily learn that mommy returns after they play, have snack, go outside, listen to a story and do art.  Ensure that your child’s teacher has a fairly predictable routine. The teacher should remind the children of the day’s activities that will lead up to your return. In no time, many children will be able to recite the routine of their day. That predictability gives your child the security of knowing when to expect you. If they cannot predict your return, the day can seem endless.

Some children are less anxious quickly while others may take more time. It is important to work in partnership with your school director and classroom teacher to help your child feel comfortable, gain confidence and move beyond their separation anxiety.

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Read more articles, learn about early childhood workshops for parents and early childhood professionals at www.cindyterebush.blogspot.com                                                        

For information about The Early Learning Center of Temple Shalom or Temple Shalom Religious School, contact Cindy Terebush at eddirector@templeshalomnj.org or call 732-566-2961.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Melody Stevens May 04, 2014 at 11:49 AM
Great points especially about what works for almost all kids is having parents not linger. I love what you say about being very specific about after which activity parents will be back. You are so right that "later" means nothing whereas something like "after nap time" tends to work better.

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