Preschool and Kindergarten Separation Anxiety
It’s the first day of kindergarten and the room is buzzing with activity. Excitement builds as moms and dads start taking off coats, giving high-fives, and sharing goodbye hugs. Some parents marvel at the fact that their kid barely said goodbye before playing with friends, some parents blink back tears as their little one starts surveying the room … and some parents start tiptoeing out of the room before their child can notice they’re gone.
Seconds later, you realize why as one previously well-behaved kid starts screaming and clinging to mommy’s leg. The mom tries her best not to look sheepish as she explains that her little one just really, really, really loves being with her. All of her hugs, kisses, and reassurances fall on deaf ears as her child outright refuses to let her walk out of the room, leaving her no choice but to stand there until her little one calms down enough for her to depart.
As a parent, you might be tempted to call this a garden-variety tantrum, but it’s actually a textbook case of kindergarten or preschool separation anxiety. It isn’t fun for you or your kid to deal with, but it plays a key role in a child’s mental development. The key to navigating this difficult stage in a kid’s life is knowing what causes it and how to anticipate the hissyfits that often accompany it.
Believe it or not, the series of events that trigger preschool or kindergarten separation anxiety begin at infancy. Babies start life with a very narrow and egotistical view of the world; as far as they’re concerned, things literally don’t exist anymore if they can’t see or hear them. As their little brains grow, they start to develop object permanence, or the understanding that things and people still exist once they’re out of sight. (Have you ever wondered why babies find peek-a-boo so fascinating? They’re learning the concept of object permanence in real time.) Once toddlers start looking for toys they can’t see instead of screaming bloody murder, they’ve got it down pat.
As it turns out, separation anxiety is an unfortunate by-product of developing object permanence. Yes, toddlers now understand that mommy and daddy haven’t vanished from existence because they’ve left the room, but now that they can connect their needs to those who can fulfill them, they want those people around as much as possible. Separation anxiety can take hold as they start to wonder when (and if) their parents are coming back to care for them.
As toddlers become preschoolers and kindergarteners, this separation anxiety can actually get worse as the bond between parent and child grows. A parent’s absence can threaten a child's sense of comfort and safety, which produces anxiety. Combine this with big changes like starting school, and suddenly your five-year-old is clinging to your leg.
Your kid’s antics may be a bit extra, but remember that kindergarten or preschool separation anxiety is pretty normal. Kids are supposed to be attached to their parents/caregivers and they’re supposed to get upset when you leave. (There are exceptions to this rule, and we’ll discuss those in a bit.) Generally speaking, however, consider the following remedies for preschool or kindergarten separation anxiety:
- Rehearse the separation process. Practice makes perfect, so try practicing the act of leaving and returning with your child. This helps foster trust between you because your kid will see you leave and come back – just as you promised. You can do this by leaving your child with a caregiver or even a playdate for a short period of time. Think about starting this practice well before school starts so your child can get mentally prepared.
- Establish a parting ritual. Make up a special high-five or a cute affirmation. Whatever you decide, do something consistent and comforting that your little one knows means goodbye. It should calm down the kid and help your little one trust you. This is a rough process for both of you, so don’t prolong it. Keep it short and sweet – and when it’s time to go, do just that.
- Let your child know when you’ll be back – and be specific. If you tell your child you’ll be back by lunchtime, make sure you’re back by then. Explain it in a kid-friendly way if necessary, but again, it’s important to be consistent.
- Stay gone once you leave. This may be the toughest part, but you have to resist the urge to return once you’ve left … no matter how bad the situation gets. Your little one’s screams may test your resolve, but remember that consistency is key. Once you’ve established your parting ritual(s), keep your word. If you don’t, you may make the next departure even worse.
Separation anxiety in kindergarteners and preschool aged children is a normal part of childhood development, but take notice if your child’s behavior seems extreme. Such behavior is known as separation anxiety disorder, and it’s a serious emotional problem that should not be taken lightly. It may seem scary, but it’s actually more common than you think. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), separation anxiety disorder is the most pervasive anxiety disorder for kids under the age of 12, affecting 4 percent of all children. However, the question remains: How does a developmental quirk morph into a full-on anxiety disorder?
Separation anxiety disorder occurs because a child feels unsafe in some way, rather than a little nervous about their parents’ whereabouts. Take a look at anything that may have thrown your child’s world off-balance, made them feel threatened, stressed them out, or upset their normal routine. New house? New school? New stepparent? Don’t be afraid to ask your child respectfully and directly what’s going on. Other situations, like a divorce or the loss of a beloved friend, relative, or pet, could also trigger separation anxiety disorder.
Insecure attachment issues could also lead to separation anxiety disorder. The attachment bond is the emotional connection that forms between infants and their primary caretakers. While a secure attachment bond makes children feel secure and calm enough to develop properly, an insecure attachment bond can contribute to childhood problems like separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety disorder isn’t particularly hard to discern if you pay attention. While separation anxiety might be marked by nervousness, if you suspect separation anxiety disorder, you’re looking for something much scarier - fear. It’s one thing to be a little skittish about mom and dad leaving, but a kid too scared to go to school, have playdates with friends, or even leave the house is another thing entirely. Here are some other red flags to look out for:
- A child who expresses fear that something terrible (sickness, injury, death) will happen to a loved one in the child’s absence.
- A child who worries that something unexpected (kidnapping, getting lost, coming up missing) will lead to those few hours away from their parents becoming a permanent separation.
- A child that fears or outright refuses to sleep. Separation anxiety disorder can make children insomniacs, due to fear of being alone and/or nightmares about separation.
- A child that exhibits physical signs of stress/anxiety, like a headache, tummy ache, or throwing up, right before or during separation.
- A child that spends way too much time keeping tabs on parents or caregivers. If it seems like stalking, that could be a sign of separation anxiety disorder.
Remedying separation anxiety disorder requires that parents be a bit more proactive than usual. The key is being as empathetic and (say it with me!) consistent as possible. Consider these pointers:
- Anticipate your child’s behavior when you separate. You can guide your kid through the separation process easily if you know what’s coming and when.
- Listen and acknowledge your kid’s feelings. Do what you can to alleviate your little one’s fears.
- Help your child find a safe space when things get overwhelming. Knowing that there’s a place to calm down adds to the consistency your kid needs.
- Give your child the chance to call home if ABSOLUTELY necessary. Make sure your little one knows that coming to school is NOT an option – and maybe all the kid needs is the sound of your voice.
- Offer praise and encouragement. If the day went well, say so! You can also leave little notes and treats to let the child know they’re on your mind, even though you’re not there.
- Try not to stress your kid out. You might think lots of activities will take your little one’s mind off separation anxiety disorder, but overscheduling is actually the wrong way to go here. Instead, allow the child time to play, relax, and sleep.
- Face the problem head-on. The sooner you acknowledge how serious separation anxiety disorder is, the sooner you can make your child feel better. Therapy could help in many cases, so don’t be afraid to give it a try if necessary.
Separation anxiety in kindergarteners and preschool aged children can be scary for a child and absolutely heartbreaking for a parent to endure. At the same time, you can rest easy knowing that it’s usually a phase that all children have to navigate – and that you’ll remember fondly once your babies get older and start relishing their time away from you!
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