Tears…so many tears. I used to watch them stream down my son's face as I crept backwards out of his preschool each day at drop-off. I’m sure the gut-wrenching feeling I had in my stomach was nothing compared to the waves of emotion he was experiencing. In those moments of sheer three-year old panic, he was trying desperately to make sense of why mom was leaving, and was searching for answers about when I would return.
Most kids will experience varying levels of separation anxiety at some point in their life. The majority of kids will have no problem facing their fears and moving forward, while others may get stuck and not be able to separate from their parents.
Separation anxiety is most often seen at school drop off time for preschoolers or when parents go to work and leave the child at daycare or with a sitter/nanny. This fear of mom and dad leaving can produce some pretty dramatic emotions in little ones and often times, crying and asking about when parents will return persists until some level of intervention is in place.
The great thing is that most kids outgrow this and it’s rare that separation anxiety persists much after the preschool years. But if it does, you might want to talk to your child’s doctor about it. I was fortunate to have a great partnership with my son's preschool teacher and found that a little bit of consistency combined with a whole lotta love and patience, helped him get over the hump of drop-off.
If you find that your child is experiencing any level of separation anxiety, here are a few tips to help ease the transition:
Hanging around and trying to calm and soothe your child may only make the situation worse. Come up with a mutually agreed upon gesture that you both do to signify the good-bye. My son and I use the book “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn for our ritual.
Involving the teacher or daycare provider in this plan is also beneficial and they can reinforce the gesture after parents leave. When my son would start getting sad and anxious after I left, his preschool teacher used to remind him to place his hand on his cheek to feel the kiss that I gave him.
You can’t expect your child to be ok the first time you drop them off somewhere if you haven't practiced leaving them in a setting in which they're comfortable. Use grandparents, friends, neighbors, and other relatives to run through the drop-off routine.
Leave your child with them for a short period of time, so they actually see you leave and have to deal with being away from you. Talk to them about what it felt like when you left, and inquire about any strategies they came up with to deal with the anxiety. Kids are very resilient and self-aware and often come up with their own ways to self-soothe without the prompting from parents.
Favorite blankets, stuffed animals, a picture – these are all transition objects that can help children adapt to new surroundings. This object helps them feel grounded and can be a touchstone for them that they can hold onto when feeling anxious. Let your child choose the object and practice using it at home before trying it out at school or daycare.
Kids with separation anxiety crave consistency so they can anticipate what's coming next. Try to keep the drop-off routine the same each time you do it and tell them ahead of time if something is going to change. If they can read, providing them with a small index card of what the schedule for the day is can be a great sense of comfort.
Kids will directly respond to how their parents react in a situation. If you're upset and anxious about the drop off, then your child will be too.
Keep your voice calm, tone low, and words consistent. Show them you love them with a big hug and “I love you." Follow up with, “I'll see you later when I come to pick you up.” My son and I used the book “Llama Llama Misses Mama,” by Anna Dewdney to help him understand that I can drop him off, and I'll be back when his day is done.