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separation anxiety in children

Preparing Your Toddler For Preschool

A child’s first day of school is an exciting milestone. Shoes are shined, and bags packed with pencils, paper, and promise. But in the midst of all this excitement, emotions can run amok. For many preschoolers, it is their first experience being separated from their parents or caregivers. And so, every year in June, children and parents cry along with the sky. Sometimes, after an exhausting day trying to console everyone, teachers cry, too.

In the classroom, separation anxiety in children can play out in a way that disturbs other children and disrupts teaching. But if you work on preparing your toddler for preschool, this tumultuous time can be a happy experience for all.

Learning Object Permanence and Bonding

Separation anxiety, that is, when a young child feels anxious upon being separated (or threatened with separation) from his or her parents or primary caregivers, is a natural reaction. The issue is how well your child can master his feelings and adjust. Two key factors influence this ability.

Object permanence, or, the understanding that an object continues to exist outside of one’s senses, is a key milestone for toddlers. It’s especially importance for children to have developed this concept by the time they enter preschool; separation anxiety is eased by a child’s ability to understand that, though his parents aren’t present, seen or heard, they surely exist and will return for him. Parents can help develop this concept in a baby’s early years, by playing games like peek-a-boo with him, or by hiding a toy under a cloth in front of him and letting him look for it.

How well a child is able to cope with separation also lies in the strength of the relationship he or she has with parents. The more responsive, sensitive and consistent parents and/or primary caregivers are to a child’s needs, the more likely she is to feel secure and trust that her needs will be met—even away from the parents’ purview. If parents or primary caretakers are distant, disengaged, passive, or inconsistent in their attention, children are likely to have more difficulty adjusting to separation. (Read more about bonding with your child here.)

Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Children

Yet even children who understand object permanence and have strong parental bonds can struggle with separation—as early as 6 or 7 months or as late as 12 to 15 months. It can be a recurring issue for children, often reaching its peak around 18 months, when many start their first school. While a little worry, uncertainty, or tears upon leaving a parent is perfectly normal, there is some behaviour that indicates a larger problem. And if it lasts beyond two weeks, it’s cause for concern:

  • Bed wetting
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Refusal to go to school or other outings
  • Refusal to sleep without a parent or caregiver
  • Acting more clingy, fearful, or cranky than usual
  • Throwing repeated temper tantrums or pleading
  • Vomitting, running nose or fever

The good news is that separation anxiety will pass, if worked on at home. Here are some suggestions for helping your child adjust to his or her new life at school. (Hint: It’s all about preparation.)

Before starting school…

Practice at home. As with anything in life, the more we practice, the easier it is. Your child will cope better at school if she has experienced being away from you before. Whether it’s an hour in another room or an evening out, set the stage early.

Be positive. If you speak about school in an upbeat and positive manner, it will register in the child’s mind as a reason for excitement—not as the thing keeping him away from his parents. This has the added benefit of instilling a love of school and learning early in him.

Adjust to a school routine. Before your child starts school, slowly move her toward the routine she will need to follow once enrolled. This may involve changing bedtimes, meal times, bathing times, etc. But if she’s already used to a school schedule, the adjustment will be less jarring.

Empower your child. Children who are able to care for themselves and their belongings feel more confident at preschool. Encourage your child to practice personal hygiene, such as wiping his nose and toileting independently. Dress him in simple clothing that he can manage on his own. And have him help pack his schoolbag each morning; it will give him a sense of responsibility and self-sufficiency that will temper anxiety.

In the first day(s) of school…

Say good-bye, but keep it short. This is perhaps the most important puzzle piece in helping kids master separation anxiety. It’s tempting to respond to your child’s initial crying by lingering or returning. But this only rewards the behaviour your child must overcome and teaches him that crying will get him what he wants.

At the same time, avoid sneaking out. It will make your kid more distrustful of his new environment and will make the second more difficult. Saying good-bye is important; but a quick kiss and hug is the best course.

Set expectations—and meet them. Tell your child where you will be and when you will return. Then, be sure to arrive on time and make listening to her new experiences a priority. If children know when they can expect to see their parents again – and that trust is reinforced by parents’ actions – they will be more comfortable at school. It also helps to discuss what will happen when the two of you are reunited, so she has a clear vision to look forward to.

Be calm. Your child will take his emotional cues from you. If you are crying or appear miserable about the separation, your kid will react similarly. No matter how you feel, project a calm, positive attitude.

Trust your child’s teachers. Crying and anxious children are nothing new to teachers. Not only have they been trained to deal with emotional kids, many have years of experience doing so. Trust their skills and know they have your child’s best interest at heart.

This is a stepping stone for child’s journey into the world without you. It has to be done mindfully, with effort and planning. Remember: A happily settled child is more active in learning and makes for a happy teacher — and happy parents!

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