Helping Your Child With Separation Anxiety

Learning from home may mean your preschooler is with you most of the time. Your child is not  having the experience of putting on their little backpacks and heading out the door to preschool.  Before the pandemic, preschool meant learning fundamental academic lessons, but also an important skill-  children learn that they can be okay for a few hours without mom or dad. If this was going to be your child’s first year going out to school, or if your child was in school but now hasn’t  been for many months, they may experience separation anxiety when you have to be apart. If your child is already showing signs of anxiety when you can’t be together, or you are worried about how they will manage when in- person school returns, here are some strategies to help.

What is Separation Anxiety?  Separation Anxiety is a normal part of child development. It usually begins in infancy when a baby or toddler realizes that their parent can go away and struggles to understand that their parent will come back. This anxiety can last through the preschool years. If your child struggles with separation, it does not mean you have done something wrong!  It is a sign of a healthy relationship. Your child is powerfully bonded to you and dependent on you, and separating from you can feel scary to them. How can you help?

Prepare your child with stories about transitions: Reading stories to your children about transitions can help them. Books that help children prepare for separations like going to school, or that address separating from a parent can help children to know what to expect. Books like The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn or I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas, or social stories you can find online can reassure children through the characters’ experiences.  Begin reading these stories with your children on a regular basis before the time for separation happens.  Talk about the characters and what they are feeling and point out that the parent always comes back. Explain to your child that when you are apart, you will always come back. 

A transitional object can help: Does your child have a favorite blanket or stuffed animal that brings them comfort? Give your child that object when you will have to be apart.  If your child doesn’t have an object, provide them with one you can find together. It can be an object of your’s or a special toy or item you pick together.  Don’t worry that your child will become dependent on this object- it will help them to have something familiar and comfortable when you can’t be together.  They will not need this object forever- after all, how many middle schoolers do you see carrying blankets?

Give them a special photo:  It can help to leave your child with a special photo of you or of your family together.  When they feel nervous, they can look at the picture for reassurance.

Transition gradually: Take baby steps toward helping your child adjust to your absence. You can start small by leaving your preschooler to play alone in a separate room for five minutes.  Increase to ten as they grow more comfortable. If possible, Increase your child’s tolerance of separation, by leaving them with your partner or a caretaker at home, while you leave the house for a walk or short break.  Increase the time to twenty minutes, and then thirty.  If your child manages this well, increase to an hour or two. This will help your child, but will also give you a break and allow you to recharge!

 If it is time to return to school, take your child to visit before the first day. Allow your child to walk around the classroom with you present.  Introduce your child to the teachers that will be with them. Even if they have met virtually, your child may not have understood that one day, they would be with their teachers in person. This may feel strange to them. Show your child how much you like the teachers and school and how confident you are that they will too. If you are anxious or unsure, your child will pick up on it!  If your child is showing a lot of anxiety at the start of school, ask about spending just  a few hours each day the first week and building up gradually.

Saying Goodbye:  When it is time to separate from your child, make your goodbye short and sweet. If you linger, or become emotional alongside your child, you are confirming for your child that separating is NOT okay.  If leaving your child at school, establish a routine like helping your child hang up his or her jacket, giving them a quick kiss and saying, “I’ll see you soon”, confidently.  Resist the urge to give in to your child’s fears by deciding not to have them stay, or by saying goodbye over and over. 

Set a routine for when you leave your child at home as well.  Make sure they have what they need to be comfortable while you are gone, give them a hug and a kiss, reassure them you will be back soon, and leave calmly. NEVER sneak out without your child knowing. This tells your child that you can disappear at any time and increases their anxiety and fear. It can be hard to see your child become upset, but remember this is only a stage. Always say goodbye and let your child know that you believe he or she will be ok. If you are consistent and predictable, your child’s anxiety will be replaced by greater confidence and independence. This will help them to grow and thrive in the years to come.