How to Manage Separation Anxiety in Pre-Schoolers: Tips for Parents
Separation anxiety is a common issue for pre-schoolers and parents alike. While some children may not fully grasp the concept of being separate from their parents, others may anticipate future separations, leading to increased anxiety. If your child struggles with separation anxiety, don't worry - there are several strategies that you can try to help them cope.
Talk to Pre-School Staff
One of the first steps you can take is to talk to the pre-school staff about your child's day. Ask questions about how long they take to settle, how their play and social skills are developing, and how well they are communicating. Staff feedback can provide valuable insights into your child's ability to share, take turns, and manage frustration with peers. If your child is having consistent negative experiences in these areas, difficulty separating from parents and caregivers may reflect their distress. In this case, it's important to target the skills and behaviors that are less developed and causing difficulty as a first step.
If pre-school staff report that your child settles quickly and is reaching normal developmental milestones around play, communication, and social skills, you can then target the issue of separation and assist your child in learning to cope with this process.
Keep Drop-Offs Short and Consistent
For children who happily get ready for school but become anxious at the actual moment of separation, keeping drop-offs short and consistent can help. Spend a period of time settling your child by engaging them with a caregiver and/or activity. Narrate your actions so your child is clear about what's happening, and stay calm. Use your face to communicate - for example, show a sad face when acknowledging your child's sadness at your departure, but then show a happy face to emphasize the fun they will have with their caregiver or friend.
Create a Routine and Normalise Anxiety
For "little thinkers" who anticipate separation well before the event, creating a "days of the week" chart can help them understand the weekly routine. Normalising anxiety or worry by validating your child's feelings can also be helpful. Encourage your child to persevere through their worries by reflecting on past experiences and creating catch phrases that they can repeat to themselves. For example, "I just need to play some games, and then I'll get used to it," "Even though I miss my mommy, I'm okay, and my mommy is okay," or "I will have a lot of fun today, and mommy will pick me up soon." Praise your child for being brave and doing things even though they are worried.
Avoid Enabling Avoidance
Finally, it's important to be aware of supporting your child's worry by allowing them to avoid pre-school or a feared event as a way of managing their anxiety. This usually exacerbates anxiety rather than diminishing it. If all of the above strategies fail, consider attending a Quirky Kid clinic anxiety workshop called "Why Worry?" for children aged 3 and above or consulting with one of their psychologists individually to discuss other strategies.
Separation anxiety is a common issue for pre-schoolers and parents, but it's important to remember that it's also a normal part of development. By talking to pre-school staff, keeping drop-offs short and consistent, creating a routine, normalizing anxiety, and avoiding enabling avoidance, you can help your child develop coping skills to manage separation anxiety. With time and patience, your child will learn to feel more comfortable with the separation process and enjoy their time at pre-school.