12 Tips to Help With Separation Anxiety

Teary goodbyes—complete with clinging, screams & tantrums—are common, and as a parent, it can be very upsetting to see your little one so sad to see you go. Here are tips Park Slope Parents has picked up from members who have had to deal with this phase in their child’s development.

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We've updated this article with advice specifically for separation anxiety in the time of coronavirus. If your child is experiencing anxiety about going back to daycare or preschool after months of social distancing, scroll down for tips and PSP member experiences.

 

1) Know that you are not alone. Other parents go through this too.

 

2) It’s totally normal.

And it's even a good thing that your child misses you!

 

3) Remind yourself that it’s only a phase.

Your child will grow out of it—although, as one PSP member warns, "it can last quite a while."

 

4) Rituals can help.

Some parents have found that coming up with songs, games, a special greeting, or a phrase to say when saying goodbye can help. Here's a suggestion from October 2020:

"One of the things that worked for us was a 'transition routine' at the door because he would literally sit down at the door of the classroom and refuse to enter. For example, some of his classes had artwork by the kids on the door and we'd need to look at each and every one and name the kid who had created it (the names were on the artwork). Or we'd count how many objects were on the door if it was pictures of something. Now this was not something that completely fixed it, but it gave him some control over the situation - I think knowing that when we finished counting he would need to enter the classroom gave him some agency over it.

Of course with drop off being outside it makes it so much harder. Maybe if there is a box you could walk around and count the spaces? Or if there's school signage, maybe something to do with that? Perhaps a song that you sing together and when it's done it's time to hug and kiss and say goodbye? (most schools do the 'one hug, one kiss and goodbye' as a routine as a lot of kids will keep asking for more and prolong it)."

 

5) Give them an item that reminds them of home and that they can hold close throughout the day for comfort. One PSP working mom describes how her son "now carries a picture of us and a lovey that I've instructed him to hug/look at when he misses us. This has helped eliminate the mid-day tears, although not the drop off situation. He actually loves school, it is just the separation issue."

 

Other ideas include a homemade keepsake:

"Her school supplied us with blank books like this before the school year and asked us to fill them with pictures of friends, family, pets, and happy memories. The book went to school with her on her first day and she's encouraged to pull it out when she's having a rough time or misses us. I wasn't sure it would have much of an effect on her, but to my surprise, she has mentioned several times that when she's feeling sad or missing us, she takes her book out and it makes her happy! Perhaps you could try making something similar for your daughter to keep in her cubby at school?"

 

Or something that belongs to you:

"The one tactic that worked best for my daughter was to actually give her something of mine at the moment I was about to leave her classroom. It was sometimes my scarf on cooler days, sometimes a ring I was wearing (side note it was one that was a cheapie ring, easily replaced), sometimes a beaded bracelet. What seemed important/different about this for her was that it was something I was actually using and had to take off and give to her. (Surprisingly, she never lost anything I gave her.) I would actively pick things to put on that I knew would be okay to give her when the moment came. For my daughter, I think the last minute nature of it helped to take her mind off of drop off and also have gave her a mission - you have to take very special care of this!"

 

Or even a temporary tattoo instead of a physical object:

"What worked for us last year at drop off was to take a pen with me and when we said goodbye, I asked her to draw a heart on my wrist so if I was missing her in the day I could squeeze my arm and pretend I was hugging her. I then asked her if she wanted the same And she said she did. 

After that I made sure I had a pen with me and she would say - mommy do you need hugs today, shall I draw you my heart? And then I’d draw her one too. 

 

(Relatedly, be sure to read PSP’s advice for not losing lovey – you don’t want to add that problem to your list of worries too!)

 

6) Say your “I love you”s, BUT, whatever you do, don’t give in.

As hard as it is, stay calm and firm. Have your kiss and cuddle before you leave and then… leave. Go. It will be tough. Yes. Really tough. But as one working mother advises, once your child realizes that crying and screaming when you leave won’t get them any more attention, they will stop.

As one PSP member shares, "The key is to be firm and to not give in. Slowly they understand that it's not working and try something new.  [Your child] just wants some attention and thinks you want it too.  Once you leave [your child will be] fine so you should shake it off as easily as [your child] does."

According to some experts, kids know that their tantrums affect you & will continue this behavior as a way to avoid separation if they know it works. 

 

7) Let them comfort you rather than the other way around. One member shared in October 2020: "When the pandemic started, my daughter was having a really hard time separating from me in our own home and it was making it really hard for me to get work done. When we were able to safely bring back our nanny, we started a routine where my daughter 'drops me off at work' by walking me to the bedroom door where I work and 'picks me up' at the end of the day, and it's worked so well. I think she really values feeling like she's more in control, where she's the one leaving me rather than me leaving her.

I think anything you can do to give a kid more control and be the one comforting you when separating at school rather than the opposite could go a long way - like having them draw a heart on you, or giving you something to remember them."

 

8) Consider arriving early. One parent suggests: "One other thing that sometimes helped was to be one of the first to arrive, not the last. When kids were in the classroom, I think it felt overwhelming to him to enter a room where others were occupied and it was hard to know which activity to do, vs entering an empty-ish room where he could control where he chose to go. But I could also see this being important with a mass drop off where if your daughter arrives earlier before a crush of people it might feel less overwhelming."

 

9) Sharing these books and TV shows with your child can help.

Books:
The Invisible String
The Kissing Hand

TV:
There is an episode of the PBS show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood that has a song "Grown Ups Come Back," which some parents sing when they say goodbye. Watch the video HERE. One parent says: "We also found having a ritual very helpful. So every morning we go over the schedule of all the things we will each do until I come home/ pick him up. And then we sing a little song from Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood that says 'Grown ups come back.' Actually, that episode of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood really helped. I guess it made him more aware of the fact that a lot of moms and dads go away during the day."

 

10) Having a preschool and/or nanny that your child loves can also help.

Leaving your child with familiar and friendly faces will help  with the stress of saying goodbyes. Many parents say that knowing their child is with someone kind and loving is a huge relief. Another PSP member describes how her child "loves her preschool and her sitter, and has begun to think of me staying home as a special treat, which makes our days together really fun."

 

11) Staff are there to help, so let them know what's going on if drop-off anxiety is an ongoing challenge.

 

12) Finally, know that when you're away sometimes, your time together will matter even more.

 

Want more? Join the PSP Working Moms group to talk about your experience as a working parent, share tips, and ask for advice.

 

Addendum: Separation anxiety in the time of coronavirus


Don't overprepare, as that can just make them more nervous, but do talk to them about things in the weeks leading up to re-entry and let them know what they can expect.

Give gentle reassurances and focus on the positives (you'll get to see your friends!).

Check with your daycare or preschool about protocols, and once you get the scoop, practice things like temperature checks, mask-wearing, and hand-washing as appropriate. For more tips and questions to ask your daycare or preschool, visit our page on Preparing for daycare and preschool in the time of coronavirus, and listen to Tribeca Pediatrics' podcast on Daycare During the Pandemic.

Ask your daycare or preschool if they can connect you with another family for an off-site playdate.

Take photos of their new friends and look at them together before school.

Accept that there might be some fallout after they go back to school. With the challenging transition, you may see regression in things like potty training, sleep, and tantrums, but this too shall pass.

 

For more advice, visit our full list of PSP resources for life in the time of Covid-19.

 

Finally, here are some PSP member experiences on re-entry in the age of Covid, which highlight both the successes and challenges of starting school during this unprecedented time.

 

One member writes...

"Hi fellow parents, I’m trying to understand how kids new to preschool/ a particular school will supported at separation in the Fall? My son will be 3 in October and has been going to an outdoor school for a year three days a week and will continue in the Fall. But he also will begin Beansprouts two days a week and it will be entirely new in terms of people, and style of school. He’s a fairly shy child and took a long gradual separation at his outdoor school to manage drop off after many weeks I understand why Beansprouts and other indoor schools aren’t allowing parents inside but I am also trying to understand how children new to preschool can be supported and any Beansprouts separation plans. Has anyone’s child gone for the first time to Beansprouts camp and have any experience from the summer that you’d be able to share ? Thanks so much."

 

Members respond...

"We are sending our son to Beansprouts summer camp this summer, having never been before.  It was therefore new for all of us - I still have never been inside, we had never met the teachers, didn't know anyone in his class and we do the drop off outside.  I was very anxious about all of this but I have to say it's really been fine!  Our son had previously attended a different preschool that has not yet reopened - so he was used to going to school- but had been home with us 24/7 for four months prior due to Covid.  

I had many lovely calls with Beth at Beansprouts and had done a lot of chatting with friends and research about their protocols and what we as a family were comfortable with and decided it was worth giving it a try.  It has definitely turned out to be the right decision for all of us.  We spoke with our son about how he was going to camp and did our best to get him excited about new friends and all the fun he would have (which helped!).  We also explained prior to his first day that when we got there we wouldn't be able to come inside but that we would be back just like his usual school to pick him up.  I was shocked to see that the first day he had minimal fussing, he wanted extra hugs and asked if we could come in, but we reminded him that grown ups aren't allowed and the teachers quickly took him from us and it was done.  In some ways I actually think it's easier because there isn't time or space for any long lingering meltdowns or goodbyes - and as usual I think it was harder on me as a parent than on him.  The staff were obviously aware it was his first day and were great about getting him involved in fun before he could overthink things too much.  Just logistically, we get there, they see us thru the door, open the door, take his temperature - and then take his stuff and he walks in.  The staff and parents are all in masks.
 
Pick up is a little strange too, because again, you can't go inside - but the teachers have been great about giving me a little rundown of the day in the doorway and bringing him and all of his things outside.  We also get a weekly email with some photos so we have a better idea of where he is and what he's been up to.  
 
Obviously none of this is ideal, but I hope it brings some comfort to know that these kids are stronger than we think, and will hopefully adjust quickly.  We are hoping to send our son back to his usual preschool sometime this fall and already know their protocol for drop off will be similar, which given the circumstances makes me feel more comfortable."
 
 
"Our 2.75 year old just went back to his preschool "camp" this week and the first day was brutal.
I luckily don't suffer from separation anxiety but he does big time post COVID.
He knows the teachers and kids but it was really hard nonetheless.
The standing still for temp check wasn't easy but watching other kids do it and seeing them go in and play was really helpful.
The teacher texted 2 minutes after I left to say he was fine and playing.
The mom leaving part is the hardest for him then he comes around."
 
 
"I’ve found transition for our toddler really difficult. We’ve limited the number of hours as a result. We will probably be doing the limited hours for quite some time. I don’t think it’s very easy on these kids who have been home since March."
 
 
"My son R. has been back at daycare four days a week for a few weeks. It’s a very small group and he already knows the two teachers but some days he cries at both drop off AND pickup. Some days he is completely fine doing both. It helps to know once I leave he is fine a couple minutes later. I know for my son he has a hard time with transitions sometimes (bedtime, etc) but once he is involved in new activity he is fine. I know one thing my daycare does is show him some of his fave toys from the window or doorway (it’s a home based daycare). That often gets him excited to go in."
 
 
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