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Separation Anxiety when Going to Preschool

7 Tips to Help Your Child with the Separation Process

By Mary FitzGerald, LCSW-C and Rebecca Landau-Millin, Psy.D.

The developmental process of separation takes place in various forms, throughout the lifespan.  Gaining greater comfort with separation helps children to build confidence and develop skills that help them to succeed socially, emotionally and academically. So often, children face difficulties in separating from parents at the start of the school day.  This is particularly observable during the preschool years. The benefits of helping a child have a more comfortable experience with separation during the early years of preschool establishes a healthy emotional foundation that can have lifelong benefits for a child.  There are many ways that parents can help children to have a more comfortable experience with the separation process at preschool. One or more of these may be useful to you:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the separation process at school –  By learning about the approach for separation at a preschool, parents can more effectively prepare and support their child.  As parents feel prepared, they are better able to convey a sense of confidence to their child.
  2. Prepare your child – Children are best able to enjoy and to be successful with new experiences when they know what to expect. Talking with your child about school, in advance, will help your child to begin the process of feeling comfortable.  Reading stories together with your child about school will help your child to visualize the experience. Playing together on the school playground, before the start of school, allows a child to feel more prepared.
  3. Find a buddy – When children can have the opportunity to establish connections with others before school begins, seeing a familiar face can bring a sense of comfort at the start of preschool.
  4. Practice active listening – Unplug and power off to fully attend to and engage with a child.  Letting a child know that you are interested to learn about what the child would like to tell you about school, when he/she is ready, without asking too many questions, allows a child to share what is most important to him/her.    
  5. Follow your child’s lead – Your child will be most receptive to thinking together and expressing thoughts and ideas when he/she feels a sense of control of the timing and duration of the conversation.  Encourage your child to let you know when he/she is ready to talk – or to play – about preschool – and when he/she would like to take a break from the conversation or play.
  6. Play with your child – Creative play is a child’s way to imagine, prepare for and develop mastery over all new experiences, including the start of school.  Playing school: Your child may be thrilled to play, “pretend teacher” and have you be his/her student. Children also enjoy, and benefit from playing school with dolls, stuffed animals, and figurines.  Other forms of play that help children gain comfort with school include drawing, puppet shows and singing songs about their experiences.
  7. Take time for yourself – The more parents feel relaxed and rested, the better parents are equipped to manage the many challenges of parenting, including helping a child with separation.   

Although back to school jitters are common for children, if you have concerns that your child is struggling with overwhelming anxiety or sadness, tearfulness, or showing other changes in his/her behavior, seek professional advice by speaking to a child psychotherapist or your child’s pediatrician.

For more information about helping children with the separation process or other parenting concerns, please contact the authors:

Rebecca Landau-Millin, Psy.D. (www.drlandaumillin.com) is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Chevy Chase, Maryland.  She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from The George Washington University.  Dr. Landau-Millin works with adults in individual and couples therapy, and parenting consultation for married or single parents.  Dr. Landau-Millin provides psychotherapy to children from preschool age through the teenage years. Dr. Landau-Millin can be reached at (301) 922-1114, or [email protected]

Mary FitzGerald, LCSW-C. (www.maryafitzgerald.com) is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and an adult Psychoanalyst with a private practice for adults, adolescents, and children in Chevy Chase, Maryland.  Ms. FitzGerald, received her Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Maryland and her postgraduate training in adult and child psychotherapy and psychoanalysis from the Washington School of Psychiatry and the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis. Ms. FitzGerald provides parenting education and support to parents with children of all ages and provides psychotherapy to young children, teens, and adults.  Ms. FitzGerald can be reached at (202) 236-2160 or [email protected]

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