Drop off at preschool was a time that both my son and I used to dread. Despite him knowing his teacher, having kids that he liked in his class, doing activities that he enjoyed and told me about enthusiastically when I picked him up, and us talking over breakfast and the drive to school about all the cool stuff he would be doing that day, he still broke down sobbing when it was his turn to go into the classroom. Everyday we were the last ones in the hallway – me kneeling next to him trying to extricate myself from his simian/constrictor like grip around my neck, giving him hugs and kisses and kissing hands, telling him that I loved him and couldn’t wait to hear about his adventures, and finally his teacher leading him by hand into the classroom. And everyday his voice followed me down the hall breaking my heart “Mommy please don’t leave meeeeee!”
Before I go any farther – understand that I truly did consider that he was not ready for preschool despite being at an appropriate age to go (3 years old, attending 3 mornings/week.) But with my husband away again I needed some time without kids to take care of myself. So I spoke with his teachers and pediatrician about this to make sure that I was not doing anything that would require years of therapy for him to overcome. The outcome was an understanding of, and a very comprehensive plan for dealing with, separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is a normal part of child development. Up through about 8 months of age, infants are still getting to know their environment so they tend to accept changes more easily. But once they have learned to trust their caretakers and surroundings, the lack of familiarity with a new person or place can result in them feeling threatened or unsafe. This fear translates to a range of expression such as crying, sleep issues, and tantrums. As children grow and learn more, their increased cognitive capabilities and awareness helps ease this fear so separation anxiety, and the expressions of it, tends to diminish. This typically happens around 2 years of age.
Typically…. As a military family our constant is change. We have had 4 homes in 12 years. In that same time Daddy has been deployed for over 4 years. He also spent an additional 2 years away for training. There was also 2 years spent as a “geographic bachelor.” So despite everything that I do to keep things stable at home – from routines, to recordings of Daddy reading, to picture albums, to phone calls or video chats – change is inevitable.
In truth, the deployments are actually easier with regard to separation anxiety. Because change is a trigger, the constancy of it being just me and the kids for extended periods of time helped them to acclimate much better. But “geo-baching” threw constancy to the wind. Sometimes Daddy was home for the weekend, but sometimes he needed to stay at the office to work. Sometimes he was home in time for dinner on Friday, but sometimes the kids didn’t see him until Saturday morning. Most of the time Daddy came home, but sometimes we would travel the 7 hours to him. How do you explain Semper Gumby to a preschooler?
Following are some steps that we have taken to help our family cope with separation anxiety. Because each child, parent, and situation is different I’m sure that there are many other hints and suggestions – I’d love to hear what has worked for you!
- Discuss the basics. What is Daddy’s job? Why does he do it? Look at pictures of him in his office, in the field, or doing things that he commonly does while away. (American Hero Books were developed to teach about the everyday job of US Service Members.)
- I also do this for me – what am I going to be doing during preschool hours? – so my son can be comforted knowing that I am not going away from him but will be doing things that are normal and even boring for him: I am just going to go for a run, or get my hair cut, or go grocery shopping, or clean the house, or have a business meeting…
- Talk about the things that child will be doing in school, or at the babysitter’s, or wherever he might be without you. Being prepared for, and excited about, what he will be doing can help by eliminating the uncertainty about what comes next.
- Create a special goodbye routine that you do each time you separate. There is comfort in familiar routine. This does not have to be elaborate, and it is better if it is simple, but it should be something special just between you. (We love the book The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn and have incorporated this into our routine.)
- Talk about the things that the family does together and keep tangible reminders of time together. Make photo albums or story books of “adventures” like a trip to the zoo or a museum. Even a walk around the neighborhood or afternoon at the local park can be recorded as a special memory.
- Years ago I found a photo album that had recordable pages. We put in pictures of our family and recorded silly messages in it, and now my son takes that with him so he can see and hear us if he starts to feel sad.
- Give Daddy a picture or a special object that he can take with him wherever he goes. Then have Daddy take pictures of himself with that object in different locations and send the pictures home. This way the child can see that Daddy is thinking about him. (We use a challenge coin that Daddy has given to each child.)
- Use a calendar. A preschooler’s sense of time is a bit wonky but a one week calendar that can be marked off at the same time each day can help a young child to visualize how long until the next reunion.
- Understand. Through the crying, and the wailing, and the clinging, calmly reassure instead of yell. Give extra hugs and kisses. Know that this phase will end. Work with child care providers on best practices for dropping off a child with separation anxiety.
- Work together. Find ways to incorporate the child into things that you would normally do alone. My son uses the dust-buster while I vacuum, his craft table is in my office so he can “create” while I am writing or researching new books, and he has the all important job of turning the salad spinner before dinner
- Hang tough. Don’t let the crying and whining and other unpleasant behaviors be used to manipulate you. Separation anxiety isn’t an excuse for breaking a house rule. So be clear to yourself and your child about what is acceptable and what isn’t.
- You don’t have to do this alone. This will end, but if you need some help coming up with a game plan on making it that far with everyone’s sanity and health intact, or this is going on beyond the scope of “the norm,” talk to your child’s doctor or other health care provider for additional insight.
*Author’s note: I am writing this 1½ years after my son began preschool. He recently turned 5 and has been in a 5 morning/week pre-K program since the fall. It has been a long journey, but staying the course has resulted in him being OK at drop-off (as well as with babysitters, and even going to friends houses for play-dates without me staying.) He doesn’t enthusiastically run into the class-room but after hugs and kisses and kissing hands and “I love yous” he does walk in all by himself. And his teachers tell me that as soon as they close the door and begin the lesson he is an enthusiastic participant in everything they do. So now when I drop him off I know that while he might miss me any drama is really for my benefit 😉 and knowing that all is OK eases my anxiety too.
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