Managing Preschool Separation Anxiety

Preschooler walking to school with mom


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Dropping off a new preschooler can be an ordeal—for both your child and you. While some kids skip into their very first classroom and hardly look back, others cry, scream, or beg you not to leave them. These children might be experiencing separation anxiety: a common phase of infancy and early childhood in which the absence or looming departure of a parent causes distress.

The good news is that there are things you can do to prepare your 3- or 4-year-old for the first day of school and help them develop coping tools for when they feel anxious at drop-off time. With a few strategies, you can help make preschool something your child looks forward to each day.

Preparing Your Child for Preschool

For children who are prone to separation anxiety, feelings of distress when a parent isn't near tend to surface around 8 months and can wax and wane through age 4 or 5. However, some children who are perfectly content in your absence as babies might develop separation anxiety in the face of a big life change—like a new sibling, a move, or yes, the start of preschool.

If you know you have a child who tends to cling to you in social settings or who has been showing some anxiety about starting preschool, consider taking special steps to prepare them for the big first day. While you may think avoiding the topic of school will reduce jitters, kids who know what to expect in certain daunting situations and practice routines to get through them are more likely to feel a sense of stability.

Visit School Before the First Day

In the weeks leading up to the start of preschool, talk to your child about a typical school day, from how they are going to get there in the morning to what they will do, see, and even eat once there. Ask for a tour in the spring or summer before preschool begins, frequent the playground if it's open to the public on certain days, and read a few books about starting preschool. Knowledge is power and the more information your child has, the more empowered they're likely to feel.

Give the Teacher a Heads Up

You probably have plenty of questions and could use some wise words from someone who has done this before. Your child's teacher is likely an expert in preschool separation anxiety and is sure to have advice to offer. Make an appointment to talk to the teacher about your concerns before school begins.

Research shows that skilled teachers can play a large role in making the transition to school easier for anxious kids. Your child's teacher may suggest research-backed ways to help ease your child into the day, including busying them with specific, pre-assigned tasks when they arrive and giving them rewards for school attendance.

Seek Out a Friend in Advance

Most grown-ups aren't thrilled with the idea of being left in a roomful of people they don't know. If possible, put some friendly faces in the crowd by scheduling play dates with some of your child's new classmates before the first day of school. If your child arrives at preschool and sees someone they recognize, they may be more likely to settle down and relax.

Plan to Bring a Transitional Object

The most important message to send your child is that you love them very much and you are thinking of them often. Together, pick out something that your child can bring to school that can remind them of that: a small stuffed animal, a photo, or even a smiley face drawn on their hand. Called a "transitional object" by child psychology experts, these familiar items ease separation anxiety and help your child feel closer to you when you are absent.

Practice Being Apart

Spending time apart will give your child practice at how to cope when you aren't in sight. This may be most important for children who don't go to daycare or have a regular sitter prior to preschool. If your child is anxious, start with short intervals—even five or 10 minutes—in which you run an errand or take a walk while a family member, friend, or neighbor hangs out with your child. Build to play dates at close friend's houses and then maybe even a full day at a relative's house.

Establish a Goodbye Routine

Rituals are comforting to children. Talk to your child about a special goodbye ritual you will do when you leave them at school each day: Maybe it's a secret handshake, a silly or special saying, or three quick squeezes. Try doing your goodbye ritual when you are practicing time apart or even just when tucking your child into bed at night.

Handling Preschool Anxiety at Drop-Off Time

Once you've done your preschool preparation, it's time to face the start of school. The first few days or even weeks of preschool can be a little rocky, even for children who aren't prone to separation anxiety. Focus on these strategies to help you and your child get through the transition.

Stay Upbeat

Kids take their cues from us, and when we are stressed, they are more likely to act out. Try to not let your child see that their preschool separation anxiety is getting to you. Smile, remind them of what they can expect that day, and talk about how much fun they're going to have.

At the same time, don't minimize their concerns. Stories of your own childhood anxieties can help you connect with your child while also proving that fears about new things are, eventually, surmountable.

Make the Break

Say goodbye using the ritual you've practiced, tell your child you'll be back soon, and then walk out the door. It may feel insensitive to leave when your child is crying or begging you to stay, but lingering can backfire. Don't delay or give them "one more minute," as it can give children the misleading impression that you may be able to stay indefinitely or that you are worried about leaving yourself.

Don't Be Late for Pick Up

It's easy to lose track of time when you have a few hours to yourself, whether you are running errands, working, or simply taking some time to relax. But make sure you or the person assigned to pick your child up is at dismissal on time—or even early. If you are late, it can cause your child even more anxiety and make dropping them off at preschool the next day that much harder.

Just when you think you finally have preschool separation anxiety under control, a school vacation or an illness or injury that shakes up a child's routine can cause a setback. This is normal. If you have developed strategies to help soothe anxiety previously, it may be only a day or two until your child regains their school-day rhythm.

When It Might Be Separation Anxiety Disorder

Many children go through phases of separation anxiety during their toddler or preschool years, often related to a new event or a certain stressful situation at home. But for other kids, separation anxiety persists for weeks or even later into childhood and adolescence. These children may be among the 4% of children who have separation anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety disorder is often diagnosed when kids show one or more of the following behaviors for four weeks or longer:

  • Extreme distress at being away from parents or other loved ones
  • Excessive worry about harm to loved ones
  • Excessive worry about danger to self
  • Difficulty leaving the house, even to go to school
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling physically ill when away from loved ones

If this sounds like your child, it's a good idea to talk to their pediatrician or a psychologist. These experts can assess whether your child may have experienced some sort of trauma that's triggering this behavior and discuss cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help children develop tools to make being away from a parent or their home less scary.

A Word From Verywell

While it can be heartbreaking to drop off a tear-stained child at preschool, know that separation anxiety is very common at this age and it will almost always get better. Most likely, your child will rebound quickly once you are out of sight and get down to the important business of playing and learning. Anxious kids might take a few more days or even weeks to adjust, but with consistent rituals at drop-off time, their independence and confidence should grow a little each day.

As you navigate the challenges that come with starting school for the first time, be sure you and your child have allies. Talk to a teacher, reach out to other parents to schedule play dates, and consult a pediatrician if you think your child's separation anxiety is not improving. The wider your child's circle of caring individuals, the less likely they will be to need to rely solely on you for comfort.

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Article Sources
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