Written by Kristi Spence, LMFT-C
Do you dread dropping off your child at school or daycare? Do you feel completely helpless as you watch your child scream and cry in desperation for you to stay? Meltdowns, crying, and excessive clinging are all signs that your child may be struggling with separation anxiety. While separation anxiety is normal for younger children, it can be extremely stressful for parents!
Although you may feel helpless, there are many ways you can help alleviate your child’s separation anxiety. The overarching goal when dealing with separation anxiety is to increase the trust between you and your child. In this blog, I will discuss three important techniques you can use to increase trust, and therefore alleviate your child’s stress (and yours!) at drop-off time.
Before we move on, I’d like to add that for the past two years, due to COVID-19, children of all ages have been living in an “unsafe” world. By that, I mean that children have been receiving messages from school, the news, friends, and family that anywhere outside the home is dangerous. Being away from home, being separated from parents feels like a significant risk. For children 6 and younger, that is a huge chunk of their life. It is no surprise that many children, even pre-teens, are experiencing separation anxiety right now.
Tip #1: Prepare your child ahead of time
The first technique to use when working with separation anxiety is all about preparation! Taking time to prepare your child for school can decrease their anxiety because 1) they tune in to your confidence which makes them feel more secure, and 2) they have more time to process their feelings.
A few times throughout the week, talk to your child about what they can expect at school or daycare. Even if you think your child is too young to understand, this step is important. When talking about expectations of the day, make sure you stick to the facts. Avoid saying things like “you’ll have such a great time,” because your child might not have a great time, and then they will trust you less or feel that they did something wrong because they didn’t have a good time. Instead, discuss the routine, discuss who will be in the classroom, and when you will pick them up.
For example: “Tomorrow you will go to daycare. I will drop you off in the morning with your teacher, Ms. Suzie. You will do a craft, play outside, have lunch, and take a nap. When you wake up from your nap, I will come pick you up.”
Tip #2: Say goodbye confidently and briefly
When it comes time for drop-off, many parents tend to linger around the classroom while their child is crying and screaming for them to come back. As a parent myself, I know it breaks your heart to see the tears on your child’s face. And it’s even harder to walk away when you know your child is scared or uncomfortable.
But by lingering, or allowing your child to cling, you are sending the message that you are anxious about leaving, as well. Your child will pick up on your anxiety and become even more anxious. Additionally, if you’ve already said goodbye and your child sees you standing outside the door, they will be confused about what “goodbye” means. This is why a confident, quick goodbye (although difficult) will send a safer message overall.
Your goodbye should sound like this: “I’m going to leave now while you stay at school, but I will come back to pick you up after your nap today. I love you!” Give a quick hug and kiss, and confidently leave. Your child will cry, and that is okay. If you need to, make a plan ahead of time with your child’s teacher about what to do if your child isn’t able to calm down after 30 minutes.
Tip #3: Organize your child’s feelings
Children are extremely resilient, but in order to cope with their separation anxiety, they will need some help from you. You can help your children organize and process their anxious feelings throughout the week by reading and by playing.
Read books specifically about emotions, about anxiety, and about separating. Listening to stories is such an impactful way of teaching because it engages your child’s emotions, which helps them understand the stories in a personal way. I recommend the following books:
- For children 0-24 months: Making Faces: A First Book of Emotions by Abrams Appleseed
- For children 2 years to 6 years: Glad Monster, Sad Monster by Ed Emberley
- For children 3 years to 6 years: The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
- For children 4 years to 6 years: The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
Playing, additionally, gives children the freedom to process their experiences and emotions. Specifically when your child is struggling with separation anxiety, spend 10-20 minutes a few times a week playing with them one-on-one. And let them be the leader of what games you play. When you play with your child, you are increasing the emotional bonds, trust, and security your children feel with you.
These guidelines are not meant to be quick fixes. The goal is to increase the trust between you and your child, which will take time. Be patient with your child, and be patient with yourself!
If you believe that your child could benefit from even more help dealing with separation anxiety, or if you have an older child who is anxious about being separated, call Legacy Counseling Service of Broken Arrow at (918) 505-4367 to schedule a session with me or one of our other family therapists.
All the best!
Kristi Spence, LMFT-C
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