Separation anxiety has always been a normal part of our life. It comes with the territory of being someone’s person, of being their North Star when a change or shift happens. Separation anxiety rears its ugly, cuddly head when our son feels scared, feels a life shift, or sometimes is just unexplainably bothered by something that only my husband or I can mend. We’ve had a few different bouts of separation anxiety and have used different tools with each stage. Hopefully you can find some tools, insight, even camaraderie with what worked and sadly what didn’t work for us. I’m writing this with the 2.5-3 year olds in mind but I truly think he can help before 2.5 and after 3. Hopefully something resonates and makes this shift a wee bit easier for your little one.
Starting Preschool (2-3 Years Old)
Bring a cuddly object.
We found something similar to his beloved bear from Pottery Barn Kids. He was given it right out of the womb and it became his comfort bear. We knew he couldn’t take a 2-ft. brown bear to school, so thankfully PBKids also makes a miniature version. We safety pinned a tag to its ear and named him Lil’ Dudley. Every photo I received from school, there was our son with Lil’ Dudley safely tucked into the crook of his arm.
“The Hug Button.”
I read this one in a blog post, coined by UK mom Louise Mallett, long ago that struck a cord with me. I kept it in my back pocket until sure enough we needed it one day. Full article here. Basically every morning before school, mom drew a tiny heart in the palms of their hands. It was a direct line to give mommy a hug and shockingly, it worked!
Drop & Go
This was my first time leaving him in any childcare and I had heard from friends to just drop and run. It was like ripping off a bandaid and I hated it every time. He would be crying in school and I’d be crying in my car. It was just silly, but eventually he stopped crying until a few weeks later, when it would be time for a new class….
Switching Preschools/Preschool Classes (3-3.5 years old)
He was older, I was wiser, and it required a different approach: the Head, Hands, Heart approach takes some serious planning and thought. It requires a flow of positivity, love, and consistency.
Morning/Arriving Routine & Goodbye Rituals
Establish a routine. If we stray from the routine, it’s as if the sky has fallen. Each morning after carefully selecting the color of his shirt for the day, having breakfast, and doing the morning shuffle, we finally arrive at school. It’s a nice walk to drop off his lunch at the kitchen, hang up his backpack, and then find our seat in the half circle. We also have developed a verbal goodbye routine. It’s one big hug, a kiss, and our special I love you followed by “try your hardest and do your best today.”
Other goodbye rituals I have heard moms and dads use at drop off:
“Remember I love you.”
“Do your best.”
“Be kind to everyone you meet today.”
“Have courage and be kind.”
Deep, Diaphragmatic Breathing
Since I’m still learning how to breathe when things are scary, I can’t imagine what it is like to have only been here for three little years trying to breathe during times of adversity. Get down on the child’s level and take the deepest, loudest breaths you can find and have them mimic and try to match your breathing. We use different visual cues such as, “Smell the flowers” on the inhale followed by “Blow the bubbles” on the exhale. It works. I promise. Thanks, mom*. 🙂
Fill a pocket with a picture or piece of fabric. This worked the BEST with my son. He is sensitive and visual and having the photo in his pocket was a constant connection. It was nestled safety in his pocket upon pick up and he even told me, “The picture made me happy at school today.” A piece of fabric from an old shirt or scarf would work as well. You can even scent it lightly with Dad’s cologne or your perfume.
My kid comes home talking about school and I’m listening so hard, but it’s like I’ve caught the very end of the conversation. I have a thousand questions and he’s only three, so is he even getting his pronouns right, let alone the events of the day and the people he was with? I probably bombard him with questions trying to figure out the whole story and situation. So, instead of doing this run around, I now ask him three direct questions:
“What made you happy today at school?”
“What happened today that you’re proud of?”
“What was your favorite thing to do today?”
Those three questions fill the three-minute car ride back home. Every now and again I get a little tidbit of information such as, “I didn’t get to take a turn today.” After careful interrogation and question after question, I finally figured out he didn’t get a turn because he didn’t say he wanted one! Silly goose! Now we role play this scenario as I pretend to be the teacher and say, “Who would like a turn?” Now Everett screams, “Me! I do! I want a turn!”
What are some tools that you and your family has used for separation anxiety with preschoolers and toddlers? Please share for me and our readers! You never know what will stick!
* My mother is a therapist and has been a huge influence and help when finding tools that have helped our son.