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Preschool separation anxiety is a set of behaviors exhibited when they are forced to transition to a new situation; in this case, starting preschool or daycare. Although there can be many causes it often stems from fears of the unknown, of being left alone in the company of strangers, or of the caregiver not returning. Behaviors may include crying, temper-tantrums, whining, clinging on to the caregiver, and sulking.
Parents sometimes underestimate their children’s fears and are caught off-guard by these behaviors. What makes the scene worse is that they are usually in front of the new parents, students, and teachers. All preschool parent information given at the time of orientation should include a section on preschool transition ideas in preparation for such an event. For those who did not have an orientation or did not have these ideas presented to them this article is for you.
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Helpful Tips for Your Child
- Prior to the new school year talk about school and daycare: Discuss what children do there, what games they are likely to play, and adventures they will go on. Look for books on the subject or make up stories of a successful preschooler.
- Increase the time away from your child: If you are a caregiver that does not spend much time away from your child start now. Increase time spent away from your child at intervals to emphasize the fact that you are coming back. Give them positive feedback on how good they were when you were gone.
- Discuss feelings with your child: Tell them it is OK to feel sad and to cry, but that temper-tantrums are not allowed. Preschoolers are experts at temper-tantrums by this age. Consistency in correcting these maladaptive behaviors is paramount.
- Plan an activity with your child after school: Keep reminding the child that they need to successfully get through the day in order to do this activity. It does not need to be a gift-type reward. Examples could include going to the library, going on a special bike ride, or doing a craft project at home. If the child does not make it through the day do not go through with the activity. Try again the next day.
- If you are able to, visit the school prior to the first day. Familiarity may decrease many fears a child may have. Introduce them to the teacher as well so they can put a face and a place with the name. Referring back to the first idea, if making up stories about school put the newly learned teachers name in the story line.
- If possible arrange your child to have play-dates with other children in their classroom. Again, familiarity may be the key to success.
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Helpful Tips for Parents
- Remember that you are not alone: Almost all children go through a phase of separation anxiety at some point of their young lives. The other parents witnessing your child’s display are probably sympathizing with you.
- Avoid rescuing: Although it is hard not to give in to your child’s demands, especially when they are making a scene, doing so may make matters worse next time. If children know that you will give in eventually they will “up the ante." There are exceptions to this exercise. You have a comfort zone, stick by it. Discuss options your preschool might have. Some preschools have a certain timeframe they will allow the child to cry such as five minutes. After that they ask the caregiver to return so the child is not put in extreme distress. Other preschools have an observation room where you can watch your child hopefully deescalate, thus putting your mind at ease.
- Ask your preschool teachers for advice on how they have handled this situation in the past. You are not the first, and unfortunately will not be the last, caregiver going through this. If possible tag-team your little one. If everyone is on the same page, breaking these behaviors will become easier.
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Do what you can to educate yourself during this time. See what works for you and your family. Hopefully this transition into preschool or daycare will be a happy one, but if not you are now prepared in how to turn it into one.