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Helping Your Toddler With Separation Anxiety

How to Ease Your Child's Separation Anxiety

 

Toddlers are at the age when they have developed a sense of “object permanence”, meaning that they know that an object is still around when out of sight. Unfortunately, they are often unable to understand the concept of time, and therefore get anxious when their parents are not around. This time may be coinciding with the time when you decide to start your toddler on a formal preschool education, and thus you may be facing constant meltdowns, crying or clinging during separation. Even if you have a family caregiver throughout the day, you may still decide it is best to send your toddler to half or full-day preschool when considering the academic and social benefits your child can get out of a preschool education.

 

Symptoms of separation anxiety

 

Separation anxiety is normal and can be seen as healthy as it shows that your child is attached to you, and feels uncomfortable with being left with unfamiliar persons. Some common displays of separation anxiety include:

 

– Being anxious or unwilling to go to preschool
– Crying during separation
– Clinging to you and unwilling to separate
– Sharing feelings of sadness or anxiety

 

Step-by-step guide for parents

 

Here’s a guide for parents on how to manage your child’s separation anxiety, including what you can do to prepare before the first day of preschool, and suggestions on how you can interact with your child before and after the preschool.

 

Separation Anxiety and Separation Anxiety Disorder

 

Before First Day of Preschool

 

Once the decision is made to send your toddler to preschool, start preparing your child in the following areas: (i) build familiarity, (ii) build confidence, (iii) create excitement, and (iv) create a “new normal”.

 

#1 Build familiarity

 

You can start to read storybooks about children going to school to introduce the idea of school. Bring your child to the preschool whenever you can, even if it is just passing by the preschool or seeing the other preschoolers play outdoors, or walking to the classroom. Talk to your child so that he can understand what you will be doing when you’re away, and what he will be doing in school. Frame it positively and don’t introduce negative connotations to it by saying statements like “you don’t have to be afraid”.

 

#2 Build confidence

 

Start slowly spending small pockets of time away from your toddler so that your child can start to understand that you will always come back. You can also plan some playdates so that your toddler has some experience interacting with other children.

 

#3 Create excitement

 

You can start shopping for backpack, water bottle, pencil case and even buy a new (small) stuffed toy to bring as a buddy for preschool. Create some excitement for preschool and let it be something that is positive to look forward to.

 

#4 Create a new normal

 

Take the first few trial days before the formal enrollment to create a new normal, and do your best to ensure that the normal is starting the preschool with security, warmth and enthusiasm. Before doing this step, you have to spend some effort selecting preschools to make sure that you find one with the program that you believe in, and accommodative of your child’s (special) needs. Make use of the trial days and no matter what you feel about the preschool, don’t let any negativity or ambivalence show as your toddler may pick up those negativity. If you’re attending the trial for a full day, you can try spending a few hours sitting further away from your child to give him the chance to build up his confidence.

 

 tips on dealing with separation anxiety

 

School drop-off

 

#5 Set a routine from day one

 

Decide on the routine that you can maintain. For instance, packing all the things you need to bring for the preschool the day before, reinforcing positive messages during bedtime, getting up the next morning, driving or getting to the preschool, and giving a warm hug and confident goodbye. Keep it the same as much as possible, in particular for the first few weeks. If your child is crying for the first few days, repeat the goodbye routine with a firm hug, kiss and saying goodbye. Do not sneak away without saying goodbye (even if you really wish to)!

 

#6 Keep the promise on when you’re showing up again

 

If you have reassured your child on when you will be showing up, do keep your promise. This will give him security and reduce anxiety. Also keep the language to one that your child can understand, such as coming back when it is time for dinner or that you will be the one picking him up from the preschool.

 

After Preschool

 

#7 Praise your child for being brave

 

If your child has done a very good job during drop-off and the teacher has feedback that he has remained calm and happy during the day, praise your child for these specific behaviors and ask about his day. You can also bring something back for him and let him know about your day!

 

#8 Listen to his feelings

 

If your toddler has something to express, be attentive and acknowledge those feelings. Check regularly with the preschool teachers so that both the family and the preschool can work closely together to help reduce the separation anxiety.

 

If the separation anxiety appears to have a sudden onset for an older child, there could be other reasons such as bullying. This is especially so if you observe other tensions from your child, a loss of appetite or trouble sleeping. Also watch out for intense separation anxiety (separation anxiety disorder) which comes with much more severe symptoms like nausea, vomiting, nightmares, fear of being abandoned, lost or panic attacks. Do talk to the doctor if you have concerns for your child in this area.

 

Written by Mei

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