Wrap-Up : Toddler’s Separation Anxiety Can Make Preschool Challenging for Mom

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The Wrap-Up is the place where we gather comments on Conversations With My Mother posts from different sources from all around the internet.

We’ve received some really interesting and insightful comments from our recent post:

My son won’t stop crying when I drop him off for preschool. I need to find some way to make the goodbyes easier!

A mother I knew was having similar problems and had tried numerous suggested strategies. She eventually had a breakthrough, at home she checked to make sure the child agreed that there was no worry because their mummy always came back, we explained that we thought their tummy was worried that mummy wasn’t coming back and gave them the challenge of reassuring their tummy. We talked about the things that would be soothing for their tummy, and they decided to tell their tummy to stay calm Mum then left school hearing the child telling their tummy to ‘calm down there is nothing to worry about’ for the first three mornings, before she could leave without fuss. ‘what is your tummy saying’ became a regular question from mum to check in on emotions as the child grew.
~ Norman C. via LinkedIn

Norman – I love this! Kids are so concrete and you’ve given the kid a way to give himself a reassuring message. Really, wonderful! ~ Dr. Susan Rutherford, Conversations With My Mother.com

We had a little one who had trouble going to preschool so we developed a car pool. The little boy was one of three being picked up by another mother and then his Mom brought them all home. He was glad to be going to school with his buddies and followed their lead on being happy to arrive at preschool. It worked very well for this child. ~ Kathy L. via LinkedIn

Kathy – Great idea! I think kids cry with their mothers far more than anyone else (it’s safe). Your idea follows my thinking about potty training – often an older child can model for the kid in the bathroom – it can work like magic! ~ Dr. Susan Rutherford, Conversations With My Mother.com

I used to be that child… 40 years ago. To be honest, nothing seemed to help me. I would cry and cry and beg not to go to pre-school. I remember clutching the carpet and my mom had to literally drag me to the car. When I was carpooled I’d cry so much I’d make the other kids cry. At age 7 I tried sleep-away camp with a good friend. I cried the entire first week and was miserable the second week. I tried again at 11 and the same thing happened. Yes, at 11 years old and even with my older brother as a counselor at the same camp. When I made it to 6th grade and went to a 4-nt sleep away retreat with classmates, I was much better. I remember college being tough but only for two weeks until I had made friends and a routine.

So, how am I helping the discussion? Well, I’m not sure but I know every child is different and needs a different type of nurturing and connection. I think feeling safe, trusting the new environment and routine can all help the situation. Having a plan and working through it with the child may help as well. I’m sure some experts have opinions based on experiments and studies. I’ll think more on the topic and hopefully be able to add something useful. ~ Kevin S. via LinkedIn

Kevin – Thanks for sharing your own personal experience with us. Sounds like separation was a difficult issue. Each child has his own twist on that experience. It really runs the gamut. ~ Dr. Susan Rutherford, Conversations With My Mother.com

There is a book called “The Kissing Hand” its about a child going to school for the first time. ~ Karen U. via LinkedIn

My daughter used to have a hard time with this when she was younger. What I did that worked was I would hang out in the room and talk with the teacher for a few minutes. This gave her time to adjust to being there and get busy playing with friends or a toy. I would always let her know when I was leaving and she would give me a hug then go back to playing with her friends. This worked really well, and also gave me a chance to know the teachers better. ~ Jeff K. via LinkedIn

Jeff – Nice approach! We’re seeing a number of ideas that focus on making it a gradual “good-bye.” I think it is soothing for the kid – and the parent!
~ Dr. Susan Rutherford, Conversations With My Mother.com

Molly, I ran large Early Childhood Center in Cleveland for many years and that, coupled with the experience of my own 3 children and grandchildren, I have seen this issue come up again and again. It is quite common for toddlers to resist going to preschool-they are old enough to be completely aware that you will be someplace without them (work, home etc) and even if verbal, they are not truly able to articulate the issues that are bothering them. I would ask a couple of questions: did the school you choose have a separation policy where they encourage parents to stay with the child so there is time to develop an authentic, trusting relationship with his or her teacher? Does the toddler room have many children with a noise level that may be too high for some children to manage? Or, perhaps your child has attended this school since infancy and it was only when he reached toddler age that his awareness-and anticipation- of the separation were more real to him. In any case, some suggestions that might help:
1. You know your child is missing you-you are missing him, I am sure!. Describe that feeling; I know it is hard to say bye in the morning. You wish I didn’t have to go-I do too. You know your teachers will keep you safe and you will play with your friends, have lunch (etc.) but mommy always comes back (love that mantra!)
2. Most children, even if they are truly ill, say their tummies hurt-it is the center of their small universe. And, I agree with saying that your tummy is telling you something; but it is unlikely that it has anything to do with a real tummy ache. That something is that the child is missing mom-and she misses you! And, Jeff has got it just right when he says he hangs out allowing his child to get comfortable-and he never sneaks out!
3.At night, sleep is another type of separation and a child who has some struggles in the day may likely have trouble at night. You can make a simple calendar together which you child can check to see if the next day is a school day or a weekend.
4. You can also ask your child what would make it easier for him to go to school-if he is verbal, he may ask for you keys (not the set you need, of course!) and many children like to take something of their parent’s-like a scarf, or a pair of gloves-that they can touch during the day. Other children take comfort in looking at a small album of family pix with the teacher talking to the child about it and reminding that mommy does always come back. Hope this was helpful-in my parent coaching business, I observe many children who exhibit more severe separation issues. In almost all cases, the school has a drop and run policy; that is, they tell the parent, “Don’t worry, he always stops crying”. So for those of you looking, ask if the school has an actual separation policy. Those few extra hours you put in at the beginning of their school career will pay dividends for years to come. ~ Susan G. via LinkedIn

Wow! When kids cry parents are allowed to stay in the classroom until the child calms down and finds something/one to play with. Teachers should be able to help here if mums are struggling. ~ Patricia P. via LinkedIn

Patricia – Yes, I would imagine that the teachers try to be helpful with the kids and parents when there is regular difficulty in separating from the Mom. If not, the Mom should ask for some help. I should think teachers are accustomed to this scenario. Thanks for your advice! ~ Dr. Susan Rutherford, Conversations With My Mother.com

At the beginning of the school year I wrote an article for parents with tips on helping your child be happier when you leave them. I have put the link below.
I feel for both parents and children in this stressful situation. It is so difficult for both the little one and parent when you need to repeat the anxiety daily and certainly when the parent is calmer and the teacher supportive the child will feel much happier. I am not sure if it is appropriate to add the link here but I do so in case my tips are helpful. Generally if you can increase the positive and help the child feel very important about going to school I think that helps so take some photo’s put paintings on the fridge and really help them to understand the big step they are taking is exciting and positive. Take a look around the kindy and talk to your child about the interesting objects, materials and activities. For many children feeling good about relationships is the key. Children don’t always have the conversation skills to ‘break into” a new group teach him ways to connect with the other children. In general try to help them fit in and build some connections, increase their sense of comfort by helping them recognise and build on anything that will be foster security or familiarity. Tell them stories about others they know who went to kindy too. Try having a play day and invite some new kindy moms and friends over. Lastly do anything you can to increase his emotional and physical comfort. Find out in what areas he has choices or options and encourage him to have some control over his new situation. For example maybe he can do puzzles either in the reading corner or on the table with other children. Maybe he can choose indoor or outdoor play. Also..help him or her feel comfortable using the bathroom – this can really be a big deal for some kids, it may be that you need to take him to the toilet on arrival so that is one less thing to worry about for a while when he or she is trying to settle in. Talk positively about the teacher, the children and the environment at home. So that you child will learn …this is ok with my mom or dad so it will also be ok for me. I hope this helps. Remember it takes a little time to make any new routine a habit sometimes as long as 6 weeks until that happens take care of you too mom and dad. Secrets To Make Your Child Happier When You Leave Them  ~ Rosie B. via LinkedIn

Rosie – Thanks so much for this thoughtful reply. I liked all of your ideas. As we know, this is a common concern in preschool, and I’m sure your thoughts will be very much appreciated. ~ Dr. Susan Rutherford, Conversations With My Mother.com

When I ran a playgroups many years ago, this was a regular problem. I used to encourage Mum to stay for say, 10 minutes and help engage their little one in an activity that the liked, then tell them they were leaving for a little while (but wished THEY could stay and play,they had to do the boring shopping/washing, or something their child didn’t like doing) and if they left, say, a shopping bag/library book/umbrella, could they look after it until Mummy came back at lunchtime? This gave the child a feeling of responsibility, reassurance that Mum was coming back soon, and a comforting, familiar thing to go check on when or if, they had a wobble. Talking to them on the way home about feeling afraid, lonely, sad, is useful, and trying hard to be bright and positive when it is time to go.

This strategy still seems to work with my grandchildren and the toddlers I have at my Toddler Group, so give it a try, and remember that not all groups suit all children!         ~ Dee B. via LinkedIn

Great blog Molly. I plan to peruse it thoroughly as I REALLY liked what you and Dr. Rutherford had to say. I see a lot of behavioral psychology concepts within everyone’s suggestions; I am a strong supporter of integrating behavioral and traditional psychology to optimally support our kiddos.

Modeling: What a great suggestion! Modeling is one of the most powerful ways for humans to learn seeing as modeling is non-verbal behavior is has a far reach.

Priming: Dr. Rutherford suggested that the parent repeat a mantra “mom will be back.” Priming is OH SO POWERFUL. I cannot stress enough how many maladaptive behaviors are nipped in the bud BEFORE they occur simply by using the priming technique.

One thing the article mentioned briefly that I would like to elaborate on is that parents and caretakers do not have to use the same phrase repeatedly. In “priming,” reinforcing the concept is the key. It is to parent’s benefit to reinforce the concept in as many ways and during as many different opportunities as possible. Whether it be through books (as someone previously mentioned), songs, affirmations, etc.

Finally, to add my two cents as a professional…I would utilize practice with the child. I have found that children LOVE practicing. I think it’s because it is like playing pretend with adults. From a behavioral psychology perspective if I have a child who had difficulty separating I would practice with that parent outside of the situation. It might look something like this…

during a moment when the child is happy, full, and rested mom would suggest “Hey little bean, guess what? I know you get scared when its time for mom to leave daycare sometimes. Lets practice/pretend right here where its safe. I’m not going to leave for reals, its just pretend. Then we will have a treat (or fun time together) for being brave.

Here is what we are going to do….we are going to go outside and pretend that we are walking into daycare together. When we open the door your friends will be playing with super cool toys. We will find the coolest toy and start to play. Then mom will kiss you goodbye and walk to the door. Then…that’s it! you were brave, we will have our treat.
~ Marina B. via via LinkedIn

Thanks you so much for the great feedback on our blog Marina! I so appreciate it. I really liked what you wrote about saying “Hey little bean..” I’m definitely going to try that with my little guy. I think practicing like that might really help.
~ Molly Skyar, Conversations With My Mother.com

When a child is two years old, his attachment to his mom is still very shallow and it will take a number of years before it deepens enough so that he can separate from his mom and still feel her presence. Usually by the age of 5, children can more readily separate for periods of time because by then, if all has gone well, the roots of attachment have broadened and deepened. This is why we would expect a young child to pursue contact and closeness with his parent at times of separation. Times of separation would include going to preschool, going to bed, seeing mommy or daddy leaving, having mommy or daddy get angry or yelling at him, etc. It’s actually a good sign that a child can cry when he’s facing separation. It means that he has the ability to adapt to the reality of his situation. But we have to be careful not to flood the child with too much alarm from separation. If his teacher can hold him when mommy leaves, comforting and soothing him; if at bedtime we first provide a time of warmth, comfort and closeness; if parents can leave him with another warm and kind attachment figure when they have to go out; if parents can guide, direct or correct a child without raising attachment alarm, children can adapt. Parents can also give their child an additional way of holding on to them by giving him something of theirs — mommy’s scarf or necklace, daddy’s key, a family photograph, etc. and at bedtime — mommy’s pillow, daddy’s t-shirt, etc. This can give him another way of feeling close to mommy and daddy.
The important thing is to read the child. How much alarm can he face? How much separation is he dealing with in his life? Is it too much for him? Is he losing his tears and showing signs of not caring? Does he stop missing those he cares about? When we see a child stop caring, stop crying, stop missing, stop listening, or behaving aggressively, we know his attachment alarm has gone over the top and it has become too much to bear. Parents need to read the signs carefully in order to know how much separation their child can endure, and reduce the separation until the child is older and more deeply attached. A good read is Hold On To Your Kids by Dr. Gordon Neufeld.
~ Shoshana H. via LinkedIn

Shoshana – Thank you for this well thought out understanding of separation anxiety. As you indicated, it’s a long process, helping your child feel secure enough to weather various lengths of separation from his parents. Well done!
~ Dr. Susan Rutherford, Conversations With My Mother.com

I believe children sense and feel their parents fears and pain. I would reassure the child, but this is difficult if the parent is frazzled. Tell the child it will be okay, ask what are they afraid of, and let the process take place.
~Thomas G. Via LinkedIn

Thomas – Children, for sure, sense and feel what their parents fear. Part of the separation anxiety is age related and comes from the child himself. Obviously, it’s an important issue for parents to be sensitive to.
~ Dr. Susan Rutherford, Conversations With My Mother.com

Thank you! I hope it will help some parents feel more confident in dealing with their children’s reactions to separation.
~ Shoshana H. via LinkedIn

I have found as a teacher in situations like this having routine of how the child enters the classroom helps the parent and the child. Help the child say good-bye (in a way that fits that child’s needs) and then help the child move on to an activity that they enjoy. I have also invited the parents to wait a couple of mins and then peek in to see that the child is engaged and having a great time playing and learning. I have also found that the longer the parent stays in the classroom and hugs and says good-bye many times the harder it is for the child.
~Tamara C. via LinkedIn

I totally agree with you Tamara. I have also noticed that if I drop off a little earlier than the start time (when all the kids are arriving) that it seems to help with the transition. Maybe not having the rush of kids is helpful to my little one so he doesn’t feel so overwhelmed.
~ Molly Skyar, Conversations With My Mother.com

Molly, I found for my son & I that the attachment & detachment had to start at home. He is very clingy and always wants to be by me and didn’t know what to do when on his own, so I started to make some play times when I wasn’t immediately available. Also, when I dropped him off at Daycare – (School), I would drop him off early and get him interacted with the other kids and then I would say to him, “I love you. Have fun. I’ll be back.” On days that I had extra time I would come in and spend time with him at Daycare – (School). I used School instead of Daycare for the reason of getting him thinking of School as fun. Hope any of this can help.
~ Linda M. via LinkedIn

Linda – it sounds like you’re very tuned into your son. That gradual approach often works well!  ~ Dr. Susan Rutherford, Conversations With My Mother.com

Children can never be too attached, only too insecurely attached or too superficially attached. An easy guideline to remember is to provide the conditions for the attachment to deepen and remain secure, for then the child will be able to keep you close even he is apart from you. The other guideline to remember is that when separation is not preventable, always provide ways for the child to remain connected. These very simple guidelines can give mom and dad peace of mind that their child will have his basic needs provided.
~ Shoshana H. via LinkedIn

I would recommend reading to the boy the book Kissing Hand and giving him a kissing hand every day. Also, saying something like “When I pick you up today after school, we are going to do————-” This way the child will focus on the attachment rather than the separation. Many parents put the focus on the school by saying things like, “You are going to have so much fun at school today….” This doesn’t help the child. There are other tools a mother can do in the moment and at home. I would give more advice if I knew more about this family.
Also, when we feel stressed which in this the boy experiences, belly aches and other digestive issues are not uncommon. He is not making up the belly ache-it’s his body’s reaction to separation anxiety.
~ Anna S. via LinkedIn

Anna – Thank you for your recommendation of The Kissing Hand. Your advice about when dropping off the child is very helpful!
~ Molly Skyar, Conversations With My Mother.com

If anyone is interested on March 26 at 12 noon I will be conducting a webinar focusing on childhood messages. How to stop the bully and victim mentality from developing.Here is the link. http://www.hr.com/stories/1390151205509 thank you.
~ Thomas G. via LinkedIn

Make what he is going to Preschool, sound more fun and better, ask him if there are things HE enjoys there and may be looking forward to better than what he is leaving behind, New friends New toys new adventures. Also make sure he knows you will be back he is wanted and how proud you are he is growing up and can be trusted on his own.
~ Paul M. via LinkedIn

Separation is actually worse when you linger. Bring him in with a snack, sit him at a table with his snack and/or activities. Kiss him on top of the head. And then cheerfully tell him to, “Have a wonderful/ fun day!” And then promptly leave. The workers and other children are quick distractions as well. Even if he cries/ whimpers, don’t feel the need to linger. The longer you react, the problem will continue.
~ Anne A. via LinkedIn

Totally agree that your little one has difficulty separating but there are practical tips you can try.
We have early learning centres and our children are very young 2-3 years so separation is quite often super difficult. We ask parents to provide lots of information about the children so perhaps you could give the educators details on your child’s “favourite” things to do – favourite book, TV show, movie etc. This allows educators to create a connection and build trust. The educator could prepare something special focused around your child’s favourite item.
We also encourage all parents to bring in family photos and display these in classrooms – if this isn’t possible then leave your family photo in your little ones school bag. We often see the children go to the family photo, give it a kiss and move on. It simply reinforces that you’re “still there” on a physical level. Having all family photos on the wall shows all of the children that “were all in this together” and quite often they comfort one another. It’s so beautiful to see.
Naturally being positive is the best thing to do but it sounds like you’re already doing that. Your child will be sensing your anxiety also so that wouldn’t help but you need to really speak to the educator and establish some practical strategies that will help your child to cope.
~ Susan F. via Conversations With My Mother.com website

Toddler’s Separation Anxiety Can Make Preschool Challenging for Mom

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When I drop off my two-and-a-half-year old at school he suddenly complains of a belly ache and always cries when I leave. What can I do?

MOLLY: I have to confess that this is my own dilemma that I really need some help figuring out.

Every day when I drop my little guy off for preschool we get into the classroom and he says he has a belly ache. He then will cry when I turn to leave and won’t stop until after I’ve left.

I’ve investigated if he actually has a belly ache by changing his diet and watching for it to happen at other times, but it’s become obvious that he doesn’t have stomach pain and that this is just what he says when he starts to get upset that I’m leaving him somewhere. Lately he has been doing this behavior even when I’m just putting him down for the night and not going anywhere.

This behavior is really distressing for me and upsetting for both of us. No matter what I say, nothing seems to help.

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD: (Molly’s Mom): It sounds like he has a pattern of saying he has a belly ache whenever he separates from his mom.

MOLLY: Yes, that’s what seems to be happening.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Whenever we see a pattern of behavior going on in children, we want to step back and address the root of the problem rather than what’s at the surface. So, we’ll want to examine not the claim of a belly ache, but rather the issue that’s underlying the belly ache complaint.

It’s separating from you that’s really causing this distress and he’s learned that complaining of a belly ache will get him attention and may even stop you from leaving him. To help him adjust to the reality that sometimes he will spend time without you, you’ll want to make sure he understands deep down that you will always be back for him.

During the drive into school, you might want to tell him something along the lines of: “Oh, it looks like it’s going to be a great day at school! When I pick you up, I’ll want to hear all about the fun things you did today.”

Saying this will help calm him with a sense of security as well as the anticipation of being able to tell you all about it then.

MOLLY: I already say, “Mommy always comes back,” and repeat that mantra. I tell him, “I can’t wait to come back and get you after school,” too, but these words don’t seem to be working.

DR. RUTHERFORD: He’s very young and  it may take repeating it over and over again for months for it to sink in for him.

MOLLY: And at bed time too?

DR. RUTHERFORD: The tummy ache is just an expression of the underlying separation anxiety. It’s the same issue at bed time: he’s looking for a way to derail your departure from his room by complaining that his stomach hurts. Consider planting a kiss on his belly and saying, “A kiss will make your tummy feel better.”

Then, you’ll want to say something like, “It’s time to go to sleep now and in the morning we’ll have breakfast together. See you in the morning!”

These steps will offer him security along with the anticipation of seeing you again.

Dealing with Separation Anxiety as a Single Parent

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My 5-year old cries when I’m not home for dinner and my girlfriend and I don’t know what to do.

MOLLY: This question came from a Dad in Michigan. He added that he has twin 5-year old daughters and he works a second shift at night. This means that often he is not home for dinner.  One twin cries inconsolably when he’s not there but the other twin doesn’t seem to mind when he’s gone. He added that this behavior “is starting to really disrupt the family.”

Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): It sounds like the 5-year old is missing her dad and maybe isn’t clear about when he comes and goes because of his work schedule.

MOLLY: Maybe he could make a chart?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, I think that would be helpful because she’s five and she could certainly understand a chart. He could give the times and maybe even draw a picture of a clock. For example; “On Mondays, this is when I get home and onTuesdays I come home at this time…. ” He will want to do it in a fairly concrete way.

MOLLY: So that the child can check it herself and be reassured when dad’s coming back?

DR. RUTHERFORD: She’s obviously very anxious and we don’t know exactly why.

MOLLY: Should he talk to her about that and ask why?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, I think he should. He should ask her: “What is it that makes you so upset when I have to work late and miss dinner?” It sounds like the twin sister is – at least on the outside –having an easier time with his schedule, but I would encourage him to include both girls in that kind of discussion and also involve them both in helping to make this chart.

He should also explore some of the more obvious issues like is the girlfriend overwhelmed by taking care of two kids by herself and how is her relationship with the twins. He doesn’t mention where the mother of the girls is in the picture; if the twins feel abandoned by their mother then they may be nervous that dad could do the same thing.

This dad should make time to spend with each twin individually when he can so that they feel connected to him even when he’s out of sight. Even though only one is acting out her anxiety, they both need time with their parent. He’s obviously working long hours but as a concerned parent he must find a way to carve out some time to spend with his girls to solidify their sense of security and safety.

He might also explore using a transitional object. This could be a teddy bear or other toy that sits in Daddy’s chair and “has dinner” with the family when he can’t be there himself.