Maybe it’s the first day of school, or maybe it’s the first day of daycare. Either way, separation anxiety is real. In fact, it’s normal to experience separation anxiety during moments like this. Still, it’s important to learn how to keep the stress and anxiety in check.
Levels of anxiety and stress are different for each child and parent. By implementing some of the following methods, you and your child can more effectively deal with the separation anxiety that comes.
How to Help Your Child
Whether it’s going to preschool or daycare, or any other place your child is unfamiliar with, visiting in advance and helping your child get comfortable with the new surroundings is a good idea. If possible, it’s also helpful to get to know the teacher(s) and/or provider(s). The most important thing is to help your child feel safe in the new space.
Take pictures of your child during the visit to the new location and use those to make a story about your child going to daycare or preschool.
Consider using a children’s book or video that highlights the process of starting in a new daycare or preschool. There are a number of excellent ones, including “Llama Llama Misses Mama” by Anna Dewdney, “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn, and the PBS series, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. I particularly enjoy the songs that the characters on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood sing, but be careful, they’ll get stuck in your head!
If the transition to preschool or daycare will result in a schedule change — earlier bedtime or awakening, different meal time — begin to make that change in advance. This minimizes the number of transitions made at one time.
Ask your child’s teacher or daycare provider if comfort items can be brought from home to help with the transition. Simple items, such as a stuffed animal or blanket, can help to evoke positive feelings associated with home and build upon a sense of safety.
Create a good-bye ritual. This can be a special saying — “See you later, alligator” — or a handshake to help the child understand you’re leaving for a time, but will come back. With my daughters, I say, “See you later girls” in a playful way, and they have their own responses for me.
Take cues from the teacher. They’re experienced in separation anxiety, and when they signal it’s OK that you leave, follow their lead.
How to Help Yourself
Remember, your child looks to you for how to respond to uncertain situations. Your actions can help to send the message that preschool or daycare is a safe place.
Acknowledge the anxiety you’re feeling, and talk about your feelings with a friend. Know what helps you to manage stress.
What helps you to reset? Whether it’s hiking or reading a book, plan opportunities for that activity in advance to help keep you calm. I am a strong advocate for self-care in general.
This article was written by Dr. Kyle Smith. Dr. Smith is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist for the University of Utah School of Medicine and Primary Children’s Hospital.
Primary Children’s Hospital ranks among the best children's hospitals. Located in scenic Utah, everything in our hospital is focused on providing the best care for children. For more than 90 years, we have been committed to helping children, families, and communities across the western United States.