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.
When a child has separation anxiety upon going to preschool, she is not the only one who feels the pain. Her parents, her teachers, and the other children are also affected. Some children get over the transition quickly, within a few days. Others may take weeks, or even months.
What can you do if your child is one of those who is unwilling to let go? Ms Diana Jay, 32, an English Teacher at My First Skool, shares what teachers do, and how we parents can help make the separation as easy as A-B-C.
Q: What is the most extreme case of separation anxiety that you have come across?
We have a pair of fraternal twins who have been in the centre since they were 18 months old, and who are now in K1. When their parents drop them off, they will cry. The parents will kiss their hands and say “Okay ‘baobei’ we will come soon!”. This will go on for five minutes at the car door, and continue for another five minutes at the car window. After their parents have driven off, the twins will wave frantically and cry their lungs out. This happened every single day without fail. They are much better this year, but still slightly teary in the mornings.
Q: What helped them?
The parents talk more to their children about school and school routines. We teachers continue to comfort the children and distract them by diverting their attention to their favourite toys in the classroom. The parents also come in on time to pick the children up. This cuts down on their anxiety in the evening.
Is the Crying Just an Act?
Q: What other behaviours would a child with separation anxiety exhibit?
Crying is the most common behaviour. Other behaviours include whining, shouting, children throwing themselves on the floor, crying until they vomit, and throwing down toys that they have been offered. Sometimes, we think that the children have settled, but all it takes is a reminder of their parents, or someone saying “mummy” or “daddy” for them to start all over again. It’s worse if they hear the doorbell ring and assume their parent has arrived to bring them home, only to be disappointed when it’s not.
Q: Is the crying just an act?
At times, it might seem like it, especially when there are no tears and the children whine. When this happens, parents and teachers need to be firm and get the child to stop acting up. Children usually do this because they want attention.
Q: Why do some children go to school happily, only to cry when their parents are about to leave?
Perhaps the children are excited to be out with their parents. In that case they will start crying when they realise that this precious moment (being out with the parents) is ending.
Q: What happens if the child still cries after their parent has left?
We will comfort them and repeat what the parent has said to them. We also reassure them that they will be going home as soon as their parent comes. The child will also be given space to explore independently or with friends. As and when necessary, the teacher will continue to step forward to give reassuring hugs and comforting smiles.
Q: I’ve heard ‘horror’ stories of children who cry until their lose their voices, and of children who cry for months. How common is this?
I have yet to encounter a child who cries to that extent. However I have seen children who take more time to integrate. There was a girl who needed six months to settle down. She would walk into the school crying until her class teacher came to carry her and comfort her. The minute her teacher walked away, she would start to cry all over again. Eventually, each teacher took turns to go to her, play with her, and talk to her, until she felt secure with all of us.
Coping When Separation Anxiety Gets Extreme
Q: Why do some children experience separation anxiety more than others?
Perhaps they have not had many opportunities to play with other children, and children of different ages. Parents also need to emphasise over and over again why the child needs to go to school. Lack of understanding and their young age might also be reasons why some children have separation anxiety. Sometimes, a child might simply not be ready for school.
Q: What should I do if my child cries and clings to me?
Hug your child tight. Assure her that you are simply going to work while she goes to school. Assure her that you love her, and that you will be here to bring her home later. And if you are not working and you are simply going out while she’s in school, please do not tell her about it!
Q: Should I leave my child while she’s crying or should I try to calm her down before leaving?
Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Give her a hug and reassure her that her teachers and friends will care for her while you are away. Once your child has mellowed down, give her firm hug and a peck on the cheek. Say “I Love You”, then hand her to her teacher and walk away quickly. If you feel the need to turn back to see how your child is coping, do so, blow a kiss to your child and then go.
Q: What if my child is inconsolable?
Every adult and every child has limits. A teacher is not a robot, and a child will learn to regulate his own emotions as time passes. For those first few days or weeks, the teacher will give one-to-one attention to the child, then slowly move away from the child to give him space to explore and to make friends.
Preparing to NOT Have Separation Anxiety
Q: Is it necessary to prepare my child for preschool/childcare?
Yes. Every step children take in their lives, be it big or small, is important to them. It is vital to acknowledge these phases of development. As parents, we need to help them, guide them, assist them, and ensure that they are happy.
Q: What can I do to prepare my child for the transition?
1. Interest her in books and songs. Because these are what we use in schools, you can use them as tools for your child to depend on for comfort when in school.
2. Bring them on neighbourhood walks and show them schools, or the school that they are going to attend. Talk to them about what they will be doing in school.
3. Let them choose their own school bags and water bottles. Role play the act of packing their diapers and clothes in the bag, and carrying their own water bottles. When going out on family trips, get them to carry their own bags and water bottles. Emphasise that they will be expected to do this when they go to school.
4. If possible, set up a school-style play area at home to familiarise them with a classroom setting.
5. A month or two before your child starts school, ask the school for its time-table of routines. Try to follow the routine time for lunch, shower, and naptime so that your child can get familiar with the schedule.
Why does my child cry even though I have done all the preparation with him/her?
If you have done everything and your child is still crying, perhaps your child is simply not ready. Perhaps he/she just wants your attention. Hang in there!
Q: What about us parents? Should we prepare ourselves too?
Yes. Understand that this transition is not an easy process. As hard and stressful it is for you, it’s double or triple of that for your child. Here’s what you can do:
• Work hand in hand with the teachers. Share your expectations but do not expect success in a short period of time.
• Re-emphasise at home what the teachers are doing in school to help your child cope. If you have ideas or techniques that work with your child, share them with the teachers.
• Each child is unique and special. Never ever compare and belittle your child in private or in front of others. Acknowledge her efforts however small or big they may be.