Today’s the day. Your kiddo’s first day of preschool. You’ve picked out the cute new outfit, you bought that adorable backpack and your child seems just as excited as you are about going to “big kid” school.
But something changes as soon as you wave and say goodbye. Your child’s bottom lip begins to tremble, tears run down their cheeks and they’re holding on to your leg so tightly that they’re cutting off circulation to your foot. What happened? A classic case of separation anxiety.
But the world has changed in big ways. There’s nothing “classic” about it. Separation anxiety in toddlers and small children is on the rise, and it’s no surprise that the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have a lot to do with it.
So, if your child is having a hard time letting go of your hand, rest assured you are not alone.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety in children is a totally normal part of their development. It actually helps children understand relationships and master their environment. In fact, Dr. Karin Price, the chief of Psychology Services at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, says, “It’s evidence of secure attachment to caregivers or to parents.” She’s more concerned about babies and toddlers who don’t show any distress when separated from loved ones. So, all that crying and wailing is actually a sign your kid is right on track!
When does separation anxiety typically peak in infants and small children? Usually, children start showing signs between 8 and 14 months old and the signs last until they are 2 years old. During that time, kids will exhibit some pretty predictable signs of separation anxiety, such as:
- Being afraid of unfamiliar people and places
- Throwing tantrums
- Resisting other caregivers in an attempt to convince the parent not to leave
- Signs of fear and restlessness
- Outbursts that subside once the caregiver is out of view
These signs begin to show themselves at very predictable times, too: at bedtime, at preschool drop-off and when mom or dad leave the room.
According to Psychology Today, all of this usually ends when a child begins to understand that while mom or dad may be out of sight right now, they aren’t gone forever. It may last for some kids until they are 3 years old. Remember, every kid is different. It’s not surprising that separation anxiety can be stronger in kids who have a parent who stays home with them.
If your child has been in preschool or day care since they were very young and seems super eager to get rid of you in the morning, don’t take it personally. Every parent will feel that rejection at some point.
How COVID-19 Has Changed the Game
Unfortunately, all this information assumes the world isn’t in lockdown because of a virus. The isolation adults are feeling is being felt by kids, too. If your kid has lingering anxiety or seems to be getting anxious out of the blue, you could be experiencing what Dr. Alison Escalante calls the “Shouldstorm.”
- My child should be able to be dropped off without crying.
- I should be able to leave them without feeling like a terrible parent.
- This blogger says my child should be past this. Why aren’t they?
The only “should” statement you should be making to yourself, though, is, “I should cut myself some slack!” The increase in anxiety you may be seeing in your children isn’t random; there’s a very good reason for it. We’re all trying to navigate a global pandemic! And while we may want things to hurry up and pass, be encouraged that you and your children are being affected by some truly enormous circumstances and aren’t experiencing something that wouldn’t be considered (as weird as it may sound) “normal.”
When to See a Doctor
Separation anxiety is normal. However, if you’re worried your child’s separation anxiety isn’t getting better with age or is particularly intense, talk to your doctor about separation anxiety disorder. Visit mayoclinic.org for an easy list of symptoms that can help you decide if you should have a conversation with your child’s pediatrician or therapist.
Tips for Reducing Separation Anxiety in Preschoolers
Pandemic or not, here are some great ways to help manage the anxiety your child is feeling:
If your child knows ahead of time that school is coming and that it’s something to look forward to, it may be a little easier. Familiarity goes a long way toward easing those first-day jitters.
- If they are going to preschool for the first time, practice your new morning routine a few days before to help them prepare.
- Talk to your child about preschool before it starts. Tell them they’ll get to make lots of new friends, play games and learn lots of cool things from the teacher. Talk about school as a fun experience to look forward to, like birthdays or holidays, instead of a chore to be dreaded.
- Introduce some of the activities your child will experience. For example, if your child likes to color at home, tell them they’ll get to use crayons and paper to create all kinds of exciting artwork at preschool.
- Visit the preschool with your child a few times. Introduce your child to the teacher if possible and let them explore the classroom and interact with future classmates if they are present.
Be Kind and Quick
It’s generally not a good idea to linger for too long when dropping your child off at preschool. A short transition from car to classroom actually helps your child get the day started more smoothly.
- Reintroduce your child to the teacher if they have already met. Your endorsement of the teacher reassures your child that this is an adult they can trust.
- Say a loving goodbye and leave promptly. Step back to allow your child to begin forming a relationship with the teacher.
- NEVER sneak away or leave without saying goodbye. It makes kids feel abandoned.
- Don’t get upset if the child gets upset, clings to you or doesn’t want to participate at first. Reassure your child that you will come back at the end of the day, and when you do come back, remind your child that you kept your word.
- Let your child bring a small comfort object from home that they can keep in their pocket or cubby. A favorite stuffed animal, blanket or book can make this new place seem a little less intimidating. When they need to feel a connection to loved ones, they can retrieve it.
By the way, it’s completely normal if you as a parent feel a little nervous about dropping your child off at preschool for the first time. Give yourself a little pep talk and remind yourself how important this is for your child.
Also, remember that young children take emotional cues from their parents and can pick up on their parents’ anxiety. Find ways to relieve your own stress, too. If your child sees you displaying positive feelings about school, he or she will likely feel better about it, too.
Validate your child’s feelings and tell them you understand why they feel scared and encourage them to practice being brave.
Adjusting to school is really a process, not a one-time event. Learning how to work through the discomfort and adapt to new situations is an important part of your child’s development, so dealing with first-day anxiety can be a positive experience if it occurs in a safe, supportive, loving environment, both at home and in the classroom.
Establish a familiar school-day routine to help your child get into a rhythm.
- Make sure your child gets enough rest the night before.
- Serve a nutritious breakfast that morning.
- If your child will be taking lunch or snacks, prepare them ahead of time.
- Have clothes, shoes, socks and school supplies ready to go.
- Have a special goodbye ritual, such as a special handshake or high-five.
Adapted from blog posts on littlesunshine.com. Check out their website for more ways to manage anxiety.