It. Is. Tough. It pulls at a parent's heart to have to leave their little one when they are obviously distraught and want nothing more than a little extra love. Overcoming these feelings of helplessness is a struggle for everyone. It is something that takes time and patience, which means it is probably going to repeat itself for awhile. Perhaps ten-fold sometimes. As a preschool teacher and former behavior therapist, I assure you that if your little one was to remain as upset as when you first leave, they would not be forced to stay at preschool. Working through the feelings a bit at a time is necessary for the parent and child alike. As we all know, anxiety is eased with comfort. Comfort comes in all forms in this context: a warm welcome, the familiar environment, favorite toys, seeing sweet friends, etc. All of those things become comfortable to the child with time. It's the part where the kiddos have to first try to be open, while feeling overwhelmed because of all the new things all at once, that's the challenge and creates some anxiety.
For parents new to this behavior, I like to suggest different ideas and see what they think would be best for them. It really does take a village and I whole-heartedly believe that consistency is key from everyone in a child's life. As a teacher for such young children, it is my job to keep every day as predictable as possible. This allows the children to feel like they have a handle on what to expect. For example, I can say that mommy will be picking them up after we have snack, go to the park, and then have lunch. As we do these things repeadtedly, they will begin to understand sequence of events, which can bring comfort knowing that what I say is reliable and true.
As aforementioned, parents know their child best and can usually determine what would help in the situation. Here are some suggestions for separation anxiety that I hope will provide some support:
- Short goodbyes and long hellos. The drop off routine should have the parent exuding confidence while they quickly explain what will be happening until they see them again. Show affection and then leave with a smile on your face. Plan a return that allows for time to sit in the child's environment and give 100% attention to them. Ask about their day, have them show you things, and just give them love.
- Practice runs. Pretend play is a favorite game at this age so use it to your advantage and play out the routine of the preschool day. Start with the morning prep to the pick up.
- Comfort item. Bringing a small item as a reminder of love can help a little one get through a rough patch. For some, it is a "lovie", while others would connect with a special sticker that dad gave them or a picture of the family.
- Talk about favorite parts of preschool. If a child gets excited about something, make it a big deal at home. This will soon start to have them looking forward to seeing/doing it again and being able to tell a parent about anything new that occurs. Help try to blend both school and home lives together for the children and keep communication open with the teacher so they can do the same.
- Relate feelings. Use the opportunity to name some feelings they are having and reference past experiences. Talk about previous times both of you have experienced those exact feelings and how a transition occurred to become more positive. This is huge for emotional regulation and will help them start to grasp feelings and anxiety before they start to feel debilitating.