The tears, tantrums, and clingy behavior of toddlers when separating from their parents is a normal part of early childhood development. It can be a distressing stage for parents, but separation anxiety usually diminishes by age 3, as toddlers mature and learn to cope with transitions. However, for some kids, it can make a reappearance in the preschool and school age years.
Big changes in surroundings such as a move, a new sibling, or new school can cause worry and bring back those tearful goodbyes. Your child’s anxiety is normal and there are some steps you can take to help make the daily transitions to school and activities less painful.
- Prepare ahead of time to leave your child in unfamiliar surroundings or with new people. Have a new babysitter come visit with your child before they watch them alone. If possible, have your child visit his new school before the first day. The same goes for new activities, such as dance class.
- Have a short, goodbye routine that includes letting your child know about how long you’ll be gone. Don’t get into a long discussion with your child and try not to give in and change your plans if at all possible. Stay calm if your child has a meltdown, and simply remind her you will be back when you promised and everything will be fine.
- Talk with your child to see if you can identify any sources of anxiety that may make separation from you more difficult. A sudden onset of separation anxiety when being dropped off at school may indicate something stressful has happened at school and disrupted her routine. Also, evaluate yourself to see if you are stressed. Your child can pick up on your feelings and it may add to her worry.
For kids with mild separation anxiety, taking these steps should ease the worry. However, some school aged kids experience such intense separation anxiety that it keeps them from attending school, forming friendships, or even disrupts their sleep. This is referred to as separation anxiety disorder and is a condition that is not a normal part of childhood development. Many kids who experience it feel unsafe in some way. They may be worried about something happening to their parents while they are away. Others may be reacting strongly to a change in their environment, like the loss of a loved one. Talk with your child about her anxiety in an empathetic, understanding way. Encourage her to share her feelings, to see if you can pinpoint the root cause of her intense fear of spending time away from you.
To help your child deal with separation anxiety disorder at school, enlist the help of the school counselor to formulate a plan for the school day. The plan could include accommodations like contact with home when needed or more time for drop off in the morning. If you feel like, despite your best efforts, you are not able to help ease your child’s separation anxiety symptoms, consult her pediatrician for advice.