Separation anxiety in your preschooler: What you CAN do

We’ve all been there: the morning drop-off. You’re in the car, child laughing, and you think, “this morning is great – I’m sure everything will be fine when we get there!” …only to have that gut-wrenching moment as you say goodbye: your child’s bright eyes well with tears and lip begins to quiver. You maintain your smile, but you also can’t help but feel guilty as you walk away, convincing yourself that he or she will be fine as soon as you’re out of sight, right?

Now that the first month of school has come and gone, we have our routines down and everyone has gotten back in the swing of our fall schedules. However, the hardest part, the part that everyone struggles to adjust with, is that morning drop-off.

How can parents make this transition easier, especially if our children are new students or newly starting school?

Separation Anxiety FAQS:

Separation anxiety, or more accurately “separation fears,” is a normal and essential piece of psychological development that occurs as early as 9 months of age. At this time, a child develops the cognitive ability to determine object permanence – knowing an object still exists even though it cannot be seen or heard (think of peek-a-boo). However, the fact that these fears are normal does not make them any easier to deal with. Many toddlers develop increasing challenges with separation from primary caregivers that peak between 12-24 months of age. The silver lining: by 3 years old, most children are able to make the transition on a regular basis without too much despair as they become more confident in their own abilities.

*When to consult the pros: According to the DSM-V, the manual of psychiatric disorders, separation anxiety warrants a physician’s consult when the anxiety disorder results in fearful or anxious feelings about separation from attachment figures to a degree that is developmentally inappropriate. This includes persistent fear or anxiety that the attachment figure may be harmed during the separation, extreme reluctance to be away from the attachment figure, nightmares, and physical manifestations of distress.

What you can do:

  1. Know the warning signs: Separations are more difficult when children are tired, hungry, or sick.

  2. The Prepared Environment: Time and time again, Maria Montessori’s principle of the prepared environment comes to the rescue! Preparation is the key to success in decreasing your child’s separation anxiety. Be understanding of his or her anxiety but remain firm and persistent. Your school should also be aware of this mantra. Yes, your child WILL stop crying, and usually very quickly! At HMS, we understand that the morning transition can be hard on parents. Our teachers provide expertise and guidance to any parent in need. HMS’s essential steps to create a prepared classroom environment for our students’ morning transition include:

    1. We encourage our parents to arrive a few minutes before the start of class to help you and your child feel comfortable in the classroom and leave time for your goodbye ritual.

    2. HMS helps with the transition through scheduled morning activities to change direction from the emotional transition, which has the added benefit of becoming part of the daily routine. After a few days, your child will be excited to enter the classroom and play with special morning material.

    3. We create monthly snapshots of your child enjoying each day at school while you’re away to help ease your fears as well!

    4. Our compassionate and experienced teachers and directors are trained to employ a specific protocol if your child is having a hard time, especially when your child is first starting school. You’re in good hands!

  3. Routine, Routine, Routine: Establishing a daily routine is essential to avoid the warning signs and create a prepared environment. Consistent bedtime routines combat a tired and cranky toddler and consistent morning routines fight against hungry children. Need help building your routine? Refer to our sample routine to serve as a guide to future success! A consistent routine that takes place every day builds trust between you and your child. To build that trust, remember if you tell children that you are picking them up, be the one to pick them up! Explain that you will return after a great day at school, so they know what to expect. When your child learns that he or she can rely on you to return when you say you will, he or she becomes more confident in the morning. The child can anticipate the routine over time, decreasing separation outbursts until they are a thing of the past. Finally, start each day with a positive attitude to set the stage for the day and offer positive reinforcement every time a child completes a goal; remind them that they are doing great!

  4. Keep your transition short: A brisk transition is a successful transition – prolonged transitions make it harder to let go (literally). Give your child your full attention during the transition to give a quality goodbye. Do not try and sneak away without saying goodbye, as this violates your child’s trust. Once the goodbye has taken place, leave directly after. Do not re-enter the classroom unless you are prepared to stay for the day or a special event. Re-entering creates a false sense of hope that you will quickly return, which conditions the child to think you will be back before it is time. This can lead to escalated emotional outbursts when you do leave for good.

  5. Keep a smile on YOUR face, you’re doing great: When parents are confident and comfortable with the routine, the child feels secure and gains that same confidence – children can feel your anxiety. One study found that maternal separation anxiety was positively correlated to separation anxiety in children during the moment of transition. Maternal fears of separation predicted symptoms of children’s anxiety at the time of the transition. Results demonstrated there is no better time to fake it ‘til you make it than during the morning transition!

*Tip for working parents: Create a unique goodbye ritual like a special handshake or hug that you and your child do together every morning. Keep your ritual short, sweet, and don’t forget to keep doing it! This can be a great way to ease the morning transition and strengthen your bond!

**Tip for stay at home moms: If you have stayed home with your child and are starting preschool for the first time, do a few practice runs so you and your child can adjust to the separation. Schedule play dates at grandma’s or use this time to reconnect with your significant other and schedule a date night! Start with short periods of time and work to extend them. This tactic helps establish a prepared emotional and mental environment, so your child can prepare to be away from you and prepare for the experience of going to school.

Final thoughts:

Now that you’ve created your goodbye ritual and tucked your children to bed according to your newly designed bedtime routine, you are ready to tackle the next school day! Start each day with a smile and let’s go to school!