As some pre-schoolers may not yet be fully cognisant of their identity being separate to that of their parents, it is quite normal that times of separation, like the ‘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.
Here are a few options for managing this tricky issue of separation anxiety for pre-schoolers and parents alike.
- Begin by learning more about your child’s day by having a conversation with the staff at the pre-school. Questions to ask include:
– How long does he or she take to settle? – How are his or her play and social skills developing? – How well is he or she communicating?
- Pre-school staff provide valuable feedback around issues such as how well your child is able to do things like share, take turns and manage frustration with peers. If there are significant issues occurring in these areas, difficulty separating from parents and caregivers can reflect your child’s distress at entering an environment where they are having consistent negative experiences. If this is the case, it is important to target the skills and behaviours which are less developed and causing difficulty as a first step
- If pre-school staff report that your child settles quickly and is reaching normal developmental milestones around play, communication and social skills, you can then target the issue of separation and assist your child to learn to cope with this process.
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.