For young children who may not be fully aware of their identity being separate to that of their parents, it is quite normal that times of separation, like the preschool or childcare drop-off, can be loaded with separation anxiety and distress.
Other pre-schoolers are already ‘little thinkers’, able to anticipate future separation thus increasing their anxiety surrounding the morning’s pre-school drop-off. This child may ask the night before “is it a school day tomorrow?” and then display challenging behaviour from early in the morning in an effort to avoid the anticipated separation.
If pre-school staff report that your child settles quickly and is reaching normal developmental milestones around play, communication and social skills, you can target the issue of separation and assist your child to learn to cope with this process.
If your child is displaying other negative behaviours at pre-school they may need to be targeted first – speak to your child’s pre-school teacher.
If your child happily gets ready for school and appears quite relaxed until the actual moment when you are leaving, we recommend:
Keep drop-offs short and your actions consistent e.g. Spend a period of time settling your child by engaging them with a carer and/or activity. It may help if you narrate your actions so your child is clear about what is happening “ Let’s take you over to (carer) or Let’s go and set you up with the blocks…. It’s time to say goodbye now. Mummy will come and collect you at (time). OK Mummy is going now, (kisses/hugs) bye.
Stay calm and make sure to also use your face to communicate, e.g. I know you are sad when mummy goes (show sad face) but you have a great time with (carer/ friend’s name) (show happy face).
If your child is a “little thinker” and anticipates separation well before the event, we recommend:
Create a ‘days of the week’ chart so your child is aware of school days and the weekly routine.
Normalise the anxiety or worry by validating your child’s feelings e.g. “You’re a bit worried about going to school and being apart from mummy. It’s OK to feel worried”.
Encourage your child to persevere even though they are worried by reflecting on their past experiences. e.g. “You were worried about leaving mummy last week but you were very brave and went to school and then you had lots of fun”, “you were worried when we went to the party on the weekend but then you settled in and had a great time”.
Create some catch phrases with your child to assist them to manage. Use these phrases on multiple occasions and have your child repeat them back to you. e.g. “I just need to play some games then I’ll get used to it”, “Even though I miss my mummy, I’m OK and my mummy is OK”, “I will have a lot of fun today and mummy will pick me up soon”.
Praise your child for being brave and doing things even though they are worried.
Be aware of supporting your child’s worry by allowing him or her to avoid attending pre-school or a feared event as a way of managing their anxiety. This usually exacerbates your child’s anxiety rather than diminishing it.
If all the above fail, the Quirky Kid Clinic runs a popular anxiety workshop called ‘ Why Worry? for children aged 3 and above. You can also consult one of our psychologists individually to discuss other strategies.