Breakfast was good, you sang lots of songs on your way to preschool and now it’s time to say goodbye. All of a sudden, big tears roll down his chubby little face, and the lower lip starts to pout and quiver. Then a loud wail comes out that would scare any stranger. Separation anxiety— nothing breaks a parent’s heart more.
The good news— separation anxiety is a stage of development that comes as natural as learning to walk, a stage called cognitive growth. What was once “out of sight, out of mind” is no longer true. The thought of you leaving his sight is etched in his mind and can cause much grief. This inner conflict of dependence versus independence can feel very sad to a toddler. It usually starts around 8 to 10 months of age and sometimes lasts well into the third year or older. It can also disappear for a period of time, and may bloom again when new situations arise.
Below are some helpful tips to ease separation anxiety for you and your toddler.
- Moms, make sure you feel comfortable with the preschool and its caregivers.
- Ask the teacher how she deals with separation anxiety. Does she try and engage the toddler in an activity, take him outside, etc.?
- Talk to your toddler about his new school before you visit. Tell him about the great toys and all the new friends he will meet.
- Read him books about starting school.
- Visit the school a few times before the first day. Stay calm if he’s a bit clingy. This is all new for him.
- Start with half days to make the transition easier.
- Try and have the same drop-off and pick-up time each day. A consistent routine is very important. Your child will know that after a certain activity each afternoon, Mommy or Daddy will pick him up.
When the Big Day Arrives
- Try and react with compassion and patience when your toddler won’t let go of your leg. I had one Mom that used to tell her toddler it was Mommy’s job to go to work and Jordan’s job to have fun at school. This worked great!
- Acknowledge his feelings. Say, “I know you feel sad when Mommy leaves. Let’s bake cookies after school!”
- If your child gets into melodrama, don’t join in. Engage him in an activity at school, then calmly leave with a confident smile.
- Don’t make your goodbyes too long. Hanging around for more than ten minutes will only make the separation that much harder for both of you.
- Don’t stand and look in the window. If your toddler sees you, this will send the message that this place may not be safe.
- Don’t ever sneak out. This is not only disheartening to your toddler but breaks down his trust in you.
- Have your toddler pick out a box of popsicles in primary colors, making this his special treat after school. At drop-off, ask him what color he would like to have after school. Not only does this teach him colors, it gives him something special to look forward to.
- Ask the teacher if it is okay to bring a special “lovey” from home. A photograph, blanket, etc. can be very comforting.
- Separation anxiety is sometimes more pronounced if your toddler isn’t quite himself. Make sure and tell the teacher if he didn’t eat breakfast or have a good night’s sleep.
- Let the teacher know if you work in the same building as the school. Tell her how you would like her to handle times your toddler sees you in the building.
- If you run into your toddler while you are at work, give him a kiss and tell him you are proud he is having fun in school. Make the visit short. If he starts crying, give him another kiss and walk away. Let the teacher handle it.
- Have some special stickers in your pocket, and when you see him during the day, give him a special sticker for having fun in school that day. Again, make the visit brief.
- Before you leave your toddler, give him a kiss inside each little hand. Tell him they are Mommy’s kisses to hold until she comes back. These kisses will remind him how much you love him. This will make your toddler’s heart smile.
- When you pick him up, tell him what a good job he did having fun! Tell him it makes Mommy happy and proud of him.
Remember, separation anxiety is only temporary. This is just another stage of development that helps your toddler blossom into his own. Keep a smile on your face as this too shall pass!