Toddler’s Separation Anxiety Can Make Preschool Challenging for Mom

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.

ding 22 comments on “Toddler’s Separation Anxiety Can Make Preschool Challenging for Mom

  1. Have you ever heard of brain entrainment? This has to do with the brain’s neural pathways and how to develop them.

    In brain entrainment, the more we focus on thinking about and verbally expressing what we want, instead of what we DON’T want, the more deeply ingrained we make the brain’s neural pathways have an affinity for any particular thought pattern. Whether that thought pattern is negative or positive is irrelevant. The phenomenon works the same way.

    The science and continuing-to-be-discovered understanding about the brain, plasticity and our thought patterns fascinates me as a brain dialog researcher. This neural pathway habit for separation anxiety provides evidence of the phenomenon.

    In the current story between the mom and the child being separated, if the mom will enthusiastically focus on the fun things the child experiences while being AWAY from Mom, and expresses it enthusiastically, the child will create more neural pathways and the habit of emotional security instead of separation anxiety.

    I remember when my second born son (Keenan) was about 24 months. We had been working on learning skills. (He was already reading by the time he was 16 months.) I said to him, “Reading is EASY for me.” Then, I would say, “Say that, Keenan.” Keenan, like a magpie, would say, “Reading easy me, Mommy.” Then he and I would clap and feel excited that Keenan already WAS a master of reading.

    I did the same thing with the topics of math, science and learning generally. I would say, “Learning is EASY for me. Say that, Keenan.” He would repeat it enthusiastically. Then, I might clap with him or act all excited and verbally express gratitude about his expertise. We both spoke as if he had already achieved the goal of being a masterful learner, reader, science lover, math lover, etc.

    The brain and mind work together. The more you ONLY focus on how you feel grateful for already having achieved a certain goal or developed a certain skill, the subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined. So, if you say you already ARE a master at doing something, you create neural pathways and your desire becomes physically so.

    In this example of separation anxiety, Mom could enthusiastically say, “Wow! You are really enjoying doing things at school all by yourself. I LOVE hearing you tell me what you did at school after I pick you up each day.” Speaking this way as if the goal/skill of self-confidence is already achieved helps the child’s brain feel secure.

    Mom could also enthusiastically say, “I LOVE going to school. It’s fun when I’m with people my own age. Say that (child’s name)!” Even if at first the child resists saying such things, be patient. Be consistent at your efforts because the brain loves consistency. It develops the neural pathways faster and makes quick work of making this issue become a non-issue.

    Susan Fox
    Brain Dialog Researcher
    Author, The Coma Whisperer (Amazon)

    • Susan – I hadn’t heard of brain entrainment per se. I do understand the kind of positive conditioning that you’re talking about. I think a lot of this makes sense, but I do worry about encouraging a child to “overvalue” himself, which can lead to difficult problems later on in life. I appreciate you sharing this with us!

  2. 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.

  3. Hi Molly,
    I have often found that working with the teacher to give him an “important responsibility” (i.e. putting the cushions on the floor for circle time) is a great way to have him look forward to arriving at school each day.

  4. Pingback: Preschool Challenges for Mom | Nanny First

  5. Great post. I used to be checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely helpful info particularly the last part 🙂 I handle such info a lot. I was looking for this particular info for a very long time. Thank you and good luck.

  6. I’m a veteran toddler teacher and am so impressed by what you wrote! Thank you. In my classroom I often set up an expectation … it’s basically a mindset of the behavior I wish to see. I use this technique when transitioning from one activity to another and when I think children may become upset or stressed by a change in routine. It works like a charm! I wrote the picture book Mommy Always Comes Back – a book on the subject of school separation – with this in mind. As the story is read and re-read, children experience the fun of school and mommy coming back in their imagination again and again. It gives them an idea of what to expect at school and reinforces that mommy will return. Songs, like Hap Palmer’s ‘my mommy comes back’ can be helpful, too.

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