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Separation Anxiety: Preparing Your Child And Yourself for the Times You Spend Apart

By Nancy Olsen-Harbich, MA

Leaving your little one at a preschool or early childhood program for the first time can cause uncomfortable feelings of separation anxiety for both you and your child. Remind yourself that as painful as separation anxiety may be, it represents a big step in your child’s development. It means that your child has learned to care about you and recognizes that he or she is separate from you. And, as with any big step, you can head off many disasters by preparing your child and yourself ahead of time. 

Preparing Your Child

  • Help your child to become familiar with the setting before staying there without you. Visit the school or center with your child and plan to participate in an enjoyable activity such as story time or building with blocks.
  • Let your child know that you understand how being apart can make you feel sad, lonely, or anxious, and that you have those feelings too sometimes. Be realistic about these feelings, but try to stay positive and upbeat. Read children’s books together that explore these feelings and provide examples of positive resolutions.
  • Never scold, tease, or threaten a child experiencing separation anxiety.
  • Don’t try to bribe your child into hiding feelings and putting on a happy face. It’s fine to plan a special get-together for later, but present the idea as a celebration, not as a reward for good behavior.

Preparing Yourself

  • Make sure you’re satisfied with the arrangements before your child stays there. Visit the facility, talk with the staff and, if possible, other parents of children who go there. Assess the program activities to make sure that they are developmentally appropriate for your child.
  • Share your concerns with the teachers. They have experience in dealing with separation anxiety. Let them know you are willing to work together in your child’s best interest.
  • Steel yourself to be firm, if necessary. Despite considerable advance work, some children may scream, kick, and cling to parents. If you must leave your child in a distressed state, be sure to reassure your child that you will be back at pick-up time.

Remember, You Are the Role Model

As in all other aspects of dealing with young children, you are the role model. If you are confident that your child’s participation in a preschool or early childhood program will work well for everyone in your family, your child should pick up on that feeling and will soon be comfortable with the new arrangements as well.

Nancy Olsen-Harbich is Program Director and a Human Development Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Family Health and Wellness Program. She can be reached at 631-727-7850 ext. 332 or at no18@cornell.edu.

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