I Don’t Like Mondays: Tips for dealing with your child’s separation anxiety

“The transition to preschool is often marked with two steps forward, one step back, as your child grows and learns in amazing ways — but at the same time, regresses in some behaviors, too.”

– Child psychiatrist Joshua Sparrow, M.D. & co-author of Touchpoints 3 to 6

Separation anxiety is a common preschool phenomenon. Your child is happy to wake up, happy to have his or her breakfast, happy to take a ride in the car — but when it comes to saying goodbye and joining his or her classmates at school, your pleasant, reasonable child is suddenly clinging desperately to your leg, crying or whining and refusing to start their day.

What’s a parent to do? We’ve compiled a few tips for dealing with the tantrums of separation anxiety.

  • The first step is to prepare yourself. If you’re feeling anxious about leaving your kid with their preschool or daycare, your child will pick up on it. Leave discomfort and doubts behind — and rest assured that you’re doing the right thing by leaving your child at a good school with good teachers.
  • Develop and maintain a firm goodbye routine. Maybe you help your child remove their backpack, or get their coat in order. When it comes time to say goodbye, say it with confidence and smiles. Reassure your child (in a few different ways, so it’s really reinforced) that you’re coming back at the appointed time. Then leave, and trust the preschool’s teachers to take over from there. It’s best not to linger, or remain in the classroom after saying goodbye.
  • Consider giving your child a transitional object to take with them, like their favorite blanket, teddy bear or book for a teacher to read. Leaving them with something that reminds them of home and your presence can be soothing, even if it’s just the smiley-face you drew on their hand with magic marker before leaving the house.
  • Teach the idea of separation-and-return. Dr. Sparrow suggests playing a little game together: “Roll a ball under the couch and say, ‘Look, we can’t see it. Do you think it’s still there? Let’s go look.’ When your child finds the ball, you can say, ‘See, even though we couldn’t see the ball it’s still there, just like Mommy when she went to work.’ What you’re doing is reinforcing ‘object permanence,’ a concept that comes earlier (by the end of the first year) but can be threatened by the emotional challenge that separation presents.”
  • Regression happens; it’s best to accept it. Your child may have just mastered using the potty, but then preschool starts, and you find your child is wetting the bed. Losing developmental ground is normal for children being challenged by a new schedule or school routine. Crying, clinging, impulsiveness and trouble getting to sleep may surface for your child. It shouldn’t last more than a couple of weeks, Dr. Sparrow says. And they shouldn’t lose interest in playing or other normal functions.
  • Pick your child up on time, as promised. Don’t leave your child waiting and wondering, as it only contributes to their fears for the next time.
  • Remember that tantrums are just their way of saying, “I missed you!” It doesn’t necessarily mean there is a larger problem or that preschool isn’t working for him or her. Remember, your confidence is key. They will eventually take their cue from you, and saying goodbye in the mornings won’t be so stressful.

A few “Don’ts” — Avoid these highly tempting reactions to tantrums:

  • Don’t bargain or bribe your child, as it only delays their natural acceptance of separation situations.
  • Don’t sneak out while your child isn’t aware. This may be easier for your, but it does nothing to establish a pattern of trust and straightforward acceptance in your child.
  • Don’t succumb to the demands of the tantrum. Your child will eventually get over the tantrum and start their day — don’t reward bad behavior by giving your child a day off from preschool or by changing up the routine.
  • Don’t complicate the goodbye routine. Consider saving discussions with teachers or other parents till the end of the day or until you’re outside of the classroom.
  • Don’t assume your child will or should be nervous about school (“Are you nervous about school and being away from Mommy?”) Instead, focus on what’s exciting and fun about going to school — seeing friends, playing on the playground, making art, singing songs, etc.

Sources: Scholastic.com, preschoolers.about.com, ivillage.com, education.com