Preschool Woes: Coping with Separation Anxiety in Toddlers

Nothing makes parents feel worse than their toddlers screaming, crying, and clinging to their legs as they drop them off at daycare. Separation anxiety can be as hard on the parent as it is on the child – and here are some ways to cope!

Remember: This is Normal!

Coping with separation anxiety is easier if you remember that it’s a normal part of your child’s development.  Some toddlers will have it worse than others, and it is most common between the ages of 8 and 18 months.  Most children will outgrow it by age 2, though for some children it takes a little longer. So as you gaze at all the other kiddos happily running through the doors while yours wails his head off, remember it’s a passing phase!

You Are Not a Bad Parent!

Parents can feel intensely guilty about their child’s separation anxiety.  In truth, though, your toddler’s feelings are proof that you have formed a strong child-parent bond.  This bond is essential to your future relationship and is evidence of your good parenting skills!

It’s Not an Issue of Dependence

You may worry that separation anxiety is evidence that your child is overly dependent. However, it’s really a matter of your child beginning to assert her independence: She has a strong opinion about your leaving, and the tantrums and other behavior are her means of expressing it! 

Regression is Possible

Your child will eventually grow out of this anxiety, only to revert back to it. Usually this is brought on by an illness, a child feeling stressed, or a change in the family routine.  Keep this in mind and do not worry too much if your child regresses under these circumstances.

Talk it Through

Decrease your toddler’s stress (and your own!) by letting him know ahead of time what’s going to happen. Keep the explanation short and concrete.  Toddlers have little or no sense of time, but you can show them a clock and say something like, “When the little hand is here, mommy will come back.”  This knowledge can make them feel more in control of the situation and less upset about it.

Toddlers do not have enough words yet to describe their emotions – they understand more than they can say. Talk to them about their sad feelings and about “missing” someone.  This can help them process.

Be Consistent

Toddlers thrive on routine.  If you leave your child at daycare, for instance, try to drop her off and pick her up at the same time each day.  This will help your child get into a rhythm and view the routine as normal and non-threatening.  A set schedule will also help her understand that you are coming back for her.

Be Reassuring

Your toddler’s stress is real. Offer reassurance by hugging and kissing him and telling him that you love him very much and that you will be back for him.  This is a simple thing to do, but it can help to calm your toddler’s anxiety.

Offer a Toy

If your child appears headed for a meltdown when you head for the door, offering her a favorite toy can help. The toy can be both a distraction and a source of comfort for her when you leave.  Be sure to bring the toy with you to daycare to make the transition easier.

Make It a Team Effort

Getting help from the preschool staff can make a big difference.  If separation anxiety is chronic, talk to the staff about ways to distract or engage your child as you leave to make the experience less traumatic for him.  If your daycare serves breakfast, for instance, have one of the staff settle him down to his meal while you leave.  This team effort makes it easier on everyone!

Wave Good-bye

Many parents are tempted to sneak out when their child is not looking in order to avoid a scene. However, if children feel that you are liable to disappear at any minute, this can heighten their anxiety and make the problem worse.  Waving goodbye before you leave can signal your departure in a positive way. Do it once and don’t linger.

Keep it Positive

Separation anxiety can cut both ways – you can suffer from it, too!  Don’t show your anxiety to your child – it will only add to the stress.  Instead, keep calm and positive – this will help increase your child’s faith that you will be returning for him and there is no reason to be upset.

A Few Points to Keep in Mind…

If your child’s separation anxiety seems excessive or if he has extreme reactions like inconsolable crying or vomiting when you leave, see your pediatrician.  There might be an underlying medical cause for the problem.

These intense reactions could also indicate that there is a problem with your daycare facility. If you are concerned, talk to the staff about possible problems, speak with other parents to see if their toddlers are having similar issues and consider “sitting in” for a day or two if possible. If you don’t feel that your day care is adequate, considering switching to another.

Anxiety is more intense when there is extra stress in the home, such as financial stress or an upcoming divorce. If you believe that family issues might be causing this problem, consider seeking help from a professional counselor to work through them.

Tags : preschool   toddlers   separation anxiety   

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