If you have a preschooler, you’ve probably encountered that heart-rending expression of anxiety when you first leave her in someone else’s care. This is never an easy phase for a parent or child. That said, there’s nothing to worry about — these emotions are completely normal.
Many early learners experience bouts of separation anxiety which, according to Psychology Today, can begin as young as 8 months old. The expression of these feelings is part of the developmental stage that young children pass through as they learn to trust their capabilities and their own autonomy.
Preschool — A New World
As a preschool director, I’ve seen children develop symptoms of separation anxiety at different times when they begin school. Some are upset on the first day, while others become anxious and distressed when separating from their parents or caregivers weeks into the year.
No matter when it happens, adults need to recognize that separation anxiety is normal. In fact, many of us are stressed when we enter new environments! The first day at a new job or a social event filled with strangers can cause anxiety for lots of adults. And yet, we take young children, put them in a room filled with strangers, and say, “Have a good time!” It’s unrealistic to expect that all children will gleefully go bounding into the room — so remember that your child’s separation anxiety is not a cause for concern.
7 Questions to Ask About Separation Anxiety
Parents who are looking for a preschool typically ask many questions about academics, class sizes, and the overall teaching philosophy. They do this to be confident they’re finding high-quality programs that will be a good fit for their child and family. But they also need to learn the school’s approach to handling separation anxiety in order to ensure that this developmental stage is addressed in a way that teaches confidence and kindness.
When you’re looking for a good learning environment for your young child, be sure to include these seven questions on your list of what to ask on preschool tours:
1. Do you have students who experience separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a normal, developmental stage. The answer should be yes — that they have had students with separation anxiety. They should explain that some children experience this and some don’t, but the staff has certainly addressed it with many students.
If a school administrator or teacher tells you that she hasn’t had students with separation anxiety, be cautious. It is possible that someone who is new to the field hasn't worked with children who have had separation anxiety, but experienced early childhood educators most likely have — and they should be willing to share their prior experiences and advice.
2. What are your beliefs about children who experience separation anxiety?
The answer ought to convey the understanding that this is common and, in many cases, to be expected. Separation anxiety is not a statement about your parenting. It reflects your child’s stage in the normal development of confidence and independence. These feelings signal to adults that your child is unsure of the environment and her place in it. Your child will need to learn who can be trusted and turned to in times of trouble, and where she fits in this new setting — and she will figure all of this out!
3. If my child gets upset, what should I do?
The preschool should explain their method for facilitating the separation. Some preschools offer a transitional period in which parents start by spending time in their child’s classroom and slowly transition to less and less time, until they no longer need to stay.
Other schools will tell you that the best thing you can do is leave. It sounds harsh to an upset parent, but this is actually the right message. As a parent, you have a choice in what you convey; if you linger, your child gets the message that you aren’t sure she will be able to succeed independently. It’s as if you are saying to her, “I’m not sure about this place or these people, either. I’m not certain you are able to do this without me.” By contrast, when parents smile, bid a child farewell, and leave, the message to the child is, “I trust these people, and I know you will be fine.”
If you’re considering a school that uses a transitional period as a part of its routine, you need to remember that you will eventually turn and walk away. And it’s still entirely possible that your child will experience separation anxiety when you make this final break. As a parent, you have to determine your comfort level with each approach.
The important message with either approach is that whenever the day comes to simply drop off your child, say your farewell cheerfully. Don't linger.
4. Should I say goodbye to my child, or sneak out?
This is a far more crucial question than many people realize because times of being upset are really the pivotal points in your relationship with your child. You want to establish a foundation of honesty, and your child’s school should encourage that.
The answer to this question from the school staff or director should be, “No. Smile. Say goodbye, turn, and go.” Sneaking out is not the preferable action, but it was done for so many generations that preschools are just starting to get away from it today. If your child’s school director or teacher tells you to sneak out, don’t. Your child may cry for an instant, but she will trust you more for many years to come.
5. What should I tell my child about where I am going?
Again, honesty is always best. It’s important that the teachers tell your child the same thing that you do about your whereabouts. One reason that children get upset is that they cannot imagine what is happening or where you are without them. Tell your child where you are going, and let the teacher know too.
6. What will you tell my child about when I will return?
Children don’t measure time by the clock — they measure it by actions. When you say, “I will be back later,” it is meaningless to a young child. “Soon” and “later” mean different things to different adults, and children have no sense of these words at all.
Instead, saying “I will go to the store, buy milk, and clean the living room” gives your child a bit more of an idea of the span of time that will pass until she sees you again. At the preschool, the teacher should say, “Mommy will be back after we play, go to the playground, and have a snack.” The answer to this question should create a timing system based on activities familiar to your child so that she can measure when you will return by understanding what will take place first.
7. How will you handle my child if she cries?
The answer to this question should express empathy, which may include a variety of responses because different children react well to different approaches. The preschool teachers should tell you that they will try to comfort your child, reassure her that she will be fine, distract her with fun activities, and tell her that they understand. Your child’s feelings should always be considered valid and important — in fact, they provide an opportunity to teach her new skills.
In the case of separation anxiety, your child can learn that she is capable and able to cope. For example, as our understanding of the neurological and physiological relationship between emotions and breathing has deepened, many educators are learning to teach children to breathe deeply when they are upset, thus enabling them to learn how to calm their bodies and emotions.
Young children should never be isolated or ignored when they are emotional.
One More Thought
You can never ask too many questions when deciding upon a day care or preschool experience for your child — and questions about how the staff handle separation anxiety are just as important as other queries. Directors’ and teachers’ responses will give you insights into their understanding of child development and their ability to handle not only this, but many other emotional reactions that are bound to arise in your child’s early educational experiences.
Find more expert guidance about how to help your child adjust to preschool, including a place to ask questions of the Noodle community.
Separation Anxiety. (n.d.). Retrieved September 1, 2015, from Psychology Today.
Seppälä, E. (2013, April 14). Breathing: The Little Known Secret to Peace of Mind. Retrieved September 3, 2015, from Psychology Today.