It’s the first day of pre-k and your little one is showing signs of separation anxiety. It’s a new environment with people that he doesn’t know and doesn’t trust yet. Your child clings to you like you are the last life vest on a sinking ship. How do you help your child cope with and overcome separation anxiety?
First things first and the number 1 thing that you need to understand – separation anxiety is completely NORMAL! No matter what others tell you. Children will go through this, it doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with your child. I want to share our son’s experience with entering pre-k this past fall and how we helped him cope and overcome his separation anxiety. Our son had been cared for at home for the first four years of his life. He was always in a comfortable environment with people he has always known and trusted. For weeks we had been building up school to him and initially he was very excited to start school, but a few days in the excitement wore off and soon he was not interested in staying in school. We started to notice that his anxiety was rising day by day. A couple of weeks into September we began to implement techniques to set him at ease.
Like I said above we talked to him about school well before the school year started. We took him on a couple of tours of the school, by the time the first day of school came around he was familiar with the classroom and knew where he would be in September. TIP: When looking for a pre-school program make sure to find a school that will let you visit as often as you like and that your child can come too. In this way once school starts at least your child already knows the space (or has knowledge of the space).
When visiting, ask the teachers and staff how they deal with separation anxiety and how they support families during this process. Once school starts if your child begins to show signs of anxiety, talk to your child’s teacher and see if the teacher has any suggestions. They deal with this year after year and many times can be a great resource.
The first thing we did once we noticed that our son was having an issue was to get him books related to dealing with separation. My son really took to the Llama Llama books. Specifically Llama Llama Misses Mama. TIP: Children’s book help your child relate, seek books on the topic, use reading time as teaching moments. We bought other books, which seemed to help too, find one that your child really connects to. Our son had us read the same book over and over almost every night.
Our son’s teacher then suggested we bring in a picture of our family for our son to look at every time he missed us. Ask your child’s teacher if this would be okay. TIP: Take a family photo and put it in your child’s backpack or lunch box. In retrospect I wish I would have asked all these questions before school started, it would have been devastating if we would have not been given options or support from the school and teachers. Make sure that you find a school that embraces the overall wellbeing of your child.
We were also allowed to send a stuffy to school with him. A special buddy that he could hold onto whenever he was feeling lonely or sad or missing his parents. TIP: Get a small bear or favorite comforting item for your child to hold throughout the day. This was very helpful for our son.
Our son got to the point that most mornings he did not want me to leave the classroom during morning drop off. The teacher allowed me to stay with him and settle him down for a few minutes (about 10-15 minutes each morning). Over several months I cut the time I spent with him in the morning down until eventually he didn’t need me to stay with him at all. TIP: Comfort your child for a few minutes if this will help him, then slowly start cutting the time you are with him.
Another big thing that helped our son was having mornings that were not rushed, giving him enough time to get ready and leisurely make our way to school. The less stress he felt the easier it was for him to get to school. TIP: Give yourself enough time to prepare for your day. Try to get as much done the night before as possible and don’t be in a rush in the morning. Eventually all these actions helped our son.
But the biggest thing that helped was having PATIENCE and just giving our son time to adjust and being very understanding and supportive. Acknowledging his feelings and letting him know that it was okay to be scared of a new environment and being left with people that he didn’t know. Remember that this stage will not last forever. Whatever you do, do not lose your calm and patience. Don’t let anyone tell you that he/she should not be crying day after day in class. I repeat, it is normal! Even children that have been in daycare before going to school experience separation anxiety. Even if it goes on for months, don’t lose it, hang in there and continue with your routine. Continue to talk to your child about his or her feelings about school. Continue to show support and love.
At the end of the year our son has adapted extremely well to school. He cried for several months, but now-a-days those are rare instances. There will still be some tough days but know that the separation anxiety does not last forever.
I’ve put together a free printable with all my tips – I hope this helps any parent who’s child might be going through separation anxiety. If anyone has more tips please feel free to drop in the comments!