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HomeFamilyParenting AdviceSeparation anxiety when preschool starts — Good Parenting

Separation anxiety when preschool starts — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My daughter is almost 4 and she goes to a morning preschool. This is the third week of school, and I fear she will never get used to leaving me in the morning. It breaks my heart when she cries and clings, and the teacher tells me to just go because she’ll be fine soon. Well, I’m not fine. Even though when I pick her up she’s all happy, I dread the scene I’m sure we’ll have tomorrow. Does the benefit of being in school before she “has to” be there really outweigh all this anxiety?

Mommy is Trying to Let Go

Don’t miss last weeks column Overscheduled family — Good Parenting

Dear MiTtLG,

There are lots of benefits to preschool and most students usually realize many of them by the first couple of weeks. That she is happy when you pick her up suggests she really does like it. It’s the leaving you that she doesn’t like. At school she will have classmates to play with, challenges to master, exciting discoveries and friendly teachers to take your place for most of the things a Mommy can do plus a few more. It may just take a couple weeks of learning the routine of school days for her to realize that all that fuss is unnecessary. She really is fine without you for a couple of hours.

What you’re describing is commonly known as “separation anxiety” which is a normal component of early childhood. Your daughter is expressing her strong emotional reaction to the idea of being physically separated from you because she is not used to being satisfied with a mental image of you to carry her through a period of being apart, nor can she imagine that you will indeed be reunited in a few hours. By the age of 5, with a few more years of life experience and intellectual growth behind her, falling apart over a temporary separation is not so common.
Often the level of a child’s separation anxiety, from low to high, is relative to the parent’s degree of comfort with the separation. Ideally, you are happy with your decision to put your child in preschool because you can readily see all the benefits.

School itself can help to lessen everyone’s anxiety with some gradual steps toward being happily apart. There should be an open house during which families can tour classrooms and the playground some time during the year before the child will attend. Over the summer or just before school starts, individual times can be set for parent and child to visit together before the first day. Many schools stagger the entrance so that children are not overwhelmed with a whole room full of new faces, but only a few at a time. Teachers help each child make a buddy, and conduct activities for the pairs to do together. A group of four to eight children, which may have a formal name such as “the bluebirds” or the “yellowbirds,” sit together for crayon and paper activities so they can learn each others’ names and personalities. The more regularly a child has contact with the same children, the more comfortable it becomes.

Parents can support bonding with these new friends by having parent-child play dates, which soon turn into “come home with us for lunch” (without your parent) play dates. A car pool arrangement also helps children bond with their classmates as they chatter on the way to and from school.

If you are having your own struggles with being comfortable about letting go, you should similarly familiarize yourself with what school is all about and make your own friend or friends. Set a brief face-to-face meeting with the teacher or administrator to address policies or other issues you are concerned about. (Does a runny nose disallow a child’s attendance? Are field trips managed with buses or parents’ cars? What is the balance between reading and other academic instruction and play time?) You may find all of your concerns to be trivial once you yourself have made some friends. Some schools match new parents with those who have had a year or more’s experience as part of welcoming new families. Or a Welcome Parents get together is scheduled during class time in the first week or so. Then there’s Back to School Night to go over common issues that new parents will find helpful. Be on the lookout for your parent peer. She is probably at least a little bit anxious about leaving her little one at school, too. There’s a chance each of you has different concerns and can be a reassurance to each other.

Teachers recommend developing a “good bye” ritual to help ease separation each school day. As you drive in, have some regular song singing and a routine discussion of what she can look forward to in her day, what you are going off to do (boring things like grocery shopping and laundry, I’m sure), and what the two of you will do after school. Walk her in. Help her find where to put her backpack. See that she knows which activity she will do first, then kiss the palm of her hand. Tell her to hold tight to your kiss as you wave and leave. If the classroom windows face the parking lot, she can look for you and wave as you drive off. Trust that her teacher will take over the role of comforter (and is probably an old hand at it) and will surely alert you if your daughter’s anxiety seems to be anything other than typical for an almost 4-year-old just starting school.

It’s a new experience for each of you.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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