Snuffing Out Separation Anxiety When School Starts

30/11/2016

The new school year is approaching fast, and with preschools and kindergartens in PJ vying for your attention and offering discounts for early enrolment, it is no wonder so many parents start feeling overwhelmed this time of the year.  It is sometimes easier to just pick a school nearby so you don’t have to think about it anymore, but this isn’t always the best thing to do – trading convenience for peace-of-mind can be an expensive trade-off…especially when your child starts throwing tantrums every day before school.

Oftentimes, if your child has never been in a daycare centre or playschool before, they simply don’t want you to leave and express this desire via throwing tantrums on the doorstep of the school!  This is known as separation anxiety:  it is anxiety provoked in a young child by separation or the threat of separation from their mother or father.

Separation anxiety is normal, but what is a NORMAL amount of separation anxiety?  How much anxiety is too much.  To understand this more deeply, we take a look at some case studies in our own preschool and daycare in Petaling Jaya, near University Hospital, Jaya One and Jaya 33.

What is a Normal Amount of Separation Anxiety?

According to webmd.com, separation anxiety is normal in children aged eight (8) months to fourteen (14) months old especially when they are getting used to new places and environments.  This stage is characterized by clinginess, crying and even the odd tantrum or two.  Keep in mind that separation anxiety is not limited to infants and toddlers; it can also go up to children aged six and seven years old, though normally the level of severity has decreased by this point.

Separation anxiety is especially common when the child has rarely, if ever, left their parents.  For example, in the Little Human Scholars centre, we have had children join us who have never left their parents for more than a few hours at a time, and then they end up staying with us from early in the morning until about 6:30pm.  In cases like this, we have seen that the children experience separation anxiety for a couple weeks.  Some parents choose to hand over the children to the staff and leave as fast as possible to minimise the crying while others choose to come in and let their child get accustomed to the environment, and leave after they have settled down.

How Much Is TOO Much Anxiety?

Too much separation anxiety is a bit different from the normal amount of separation anxiety that many children experience.  For one, the severity of the anxiety experienced is much more extreme.  In a separate article by webmd (which can be found here): A five-minute tantrum can seem like a million years to a parent. But kids who consistently have tantrums that last more than 25 minutes may have underlying problems.

What Can I Do To Ease My Child’s Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety can go both ways.  Keep in mind that your child will always mirror you; so if you are stressed leaving your child with a friend or family, or with dropping them at a new preschool or playschool in PJ they will hone in on those emotions and reflect them back to you.  Here are a few tips you can utilise when your child starts exhibiting separation anxiety:

  • Perfect practice makes perfect!

If your child has never left you before and you are starting them out in a new playschool, preschool or daycare centre, start practicing leaving them for a few minutes every day (supervised of course).  Leave them with a friend or family member, tell them goodbye and walk out the door preferably where they cannot see you, wait a few minutes and then come back in.  Don’t over exaggerate the hellos or goodbyes; if you make it a big deal they will too.

  • Give them a comfort item to keep with them when you leave.

There is a little girl in the Little Human Scholars playschool who, though she has been with us for some time, insists on keeping her ‘hanky’ close by especially in the morning.  Her parents often drop her off shortly after waking her and her hanky is her little comfort item.  This helps her to wake up and adjust to the school setting.  After about 15 to 20 minutes, she puts her hanky in her bag and goes about the day effortlessly.  If your child is experiencing separation anxiety, it may be good to give them a comfort item to support them in adjusting to their new settings, or to simply support them in feeling comfortable.

  • Do not feed the fear.

It is normal for children to be afraid to leave you or vice versa, but you don’t have to fan the flames of fear by reacting or by reattaching yourself to them.    Sometimes the best thing is to simply say goodbye and walk away.  Other times it may be appropriate for you to say to them, “OK, mommy is going to stay for five more minutes and then I have to go.”  Which technique you use is up to you, but do your best not to react when your child is crying.  If they see you react negatively or with fear when they cry, they may think something is very wrong and may cry even more.

If your child has never left you before and you are starting them out in a new playschool, preschool or daycare centre, start practicing leaving them for a few minutes every day (supervised of course).  Leave them with a friend or family member, tell them goodbye and walk out the door preferably where they cannot see you, wait a few minutes and then come back in.  Don’t over exaggerate the hellos or goodbyes; if you make it a big deal they will too.

In short, separation anxiety is natural and even normal.  Before children are able to communicate the most effective method of communication for them was to cry to get your attention.  And keep in mind that, up until the point of daycare or school, they have relied solely on you and your family for their survival.  It is natural for them to resist change.  But you can ease them into change with a little bit of time and effort.  After a while, they will be used to the new schedule and will adapt accordingly!

Wishing you endless happy parenting experiences!

Jana Moreno

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