Separation Anxiety and Preschool?

My toddler is about to start preschool, but he doesn’t like being away from me. How can I prep him for our time apart?
profile picture of Jeanette Sawyer Cohen, PhD, clinical assistant professor of psychology in pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City
ByJeanette Sawyer Cohen, PhD, clinical assistant professor of psychology in pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City
Pediatric Psychologist
Mar 2017
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Talk about stress! Even though starting preschool is an exciting milestone to hit, it can be riddled with anxiety — both for him and for you.

Luckily, most preschools offer some kind of phase-in program, which makes for a less abrupt transition. These phase-ins can last as little as a week or as long as a month, depending on the school, but generally they’ll allow you to stay in the room with your child for at least part of the day. Or, you may be able to start out with your child only attending school for a partial day, instead of the full day.

While you’re in the classroom, talk to the teacher, so your child can see that this is someone you trust. He’ll begin to trust her, too. If he’s clingy, don’t push him off your lap. He’ll eventually make his way to play along with the others on his own. And if he’s already comfortable exploring the room, try to sit back and relax rather than engaging him — it’s a fine balance between hovering and being available, but the more he can do on his own, the less anxious he will be when you’re not there with him.

Remember that young children don’t have the same sense of time as adults do, so you don’t need to warn him a month or so ahead of time that the first day of school is coming up. In fact, giving him too much time to think about it can raise his anxiety level.

If your child is still experiencing some separation anxiety even after a phase-in, try giving him an item that symbolizes home, like a laminated photo of the family, a favorite small stuffed animal or sippy cup. That way, when he’s missing you, he can use it as a way to check in and feel comforted.

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