The One Trick That Helped My Preschooler Overcome His Separation Anxiety

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When my younger son reached preschool, I thought we had made it. Both of my boys were in school at least part-time, we had a great daycare my son loved and we were past the baby and toddler stages that are often filled with separation anxiety. We’d dealt with the normal bouts of clinginess that many kids experience as they grow, but my son was a confident four-year-old now heading into a role model program in the Early Childhood classroom. We were going to have a great year! And we did….for about 3 months.

Then everything changed.

The stomach bug hit our house hard and my son missed a few days of school to recover. Fortunately, my mother-in-law is often willing to babysit when my kids are sick so my husband and I don’t have to miss work. When he returned to school, I expected a bit of whining and complaining since it’s hard to beat the fun of being spoiled at grandma’s house. I figured with a few extra hugs I would send him to school like normal and he would adjust once he saw his friends and teachers. Spoiler alert: that is not what happened at all! Suddenly, every day he was a crying mess at drop-off. Not just at school; sometimes at daycare, too. I pushed through and told myself not to enable him, to stay consistent with our routine. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I gritted my teeth and smiled a fake smile and told him to go to class, have a fun day! Nothing worked.

I talked to his teacher and we strategized. Bless her heart for being so patient with this previously good-natured child who had somehow transformed into a screaming howler monkey. There were no incidents at school or home that we could connect to the behavior. When I asked my son about the change in his behavior, he explained that he missed us during the day. I tried to come up with opportunities to spend time together after work and school. I stayed away from his classroom; I didn’t want to upset him if he saw me spying on him. I made charts where he could earn prizes for smooth drop-offs. We bribed with ice cream. I wore a special beaded pipe cleaner bracelet with a pink puff he made for me. We read Llama Llama Misses Mama over and over. None of it seemed to have much effect until my husband came up with the idea to make a photo album that my son could take to school. If he missed us at school or daycare, he could look at the photos to ease his separation anxiety.

I had doubts about this plan after all we had tried, but I bought a small photo album and let my son pick out photos from my phone to print. We filled the album with photos of our family, my son and his brother, his grandparents and our pets, a goldendoodle and a hedgehog. He began taking the photos to school each day and we noticed a change in his behavior. Although mornings were still difficult, we started seeing more good days again with less frequent crying. He shows the pictures to his teachers if he feels sad and they look at the book together. Seeing those familiar faces is comforting when he is feeling big feelings. Sometimes I will slip a special note in one of the empty photo spaces as a surprise.

Separation anxiety is still a struggle at our house. As with many childhood fears, there is often not one simple answer or “cure”. We have never figured out what caused the shift in my son’s behavior. We may never know for sure! Possibly the one small change in routine when he was sick for several days or a conversation or experience we are not aware of. Returning to school after long breaks or weekends can put us right back at square one again. In addition to his special photo book, we see a counselor who uses play therapy and we continue checking in with his teacher frequently. If your child is struggling with separation anxiety, please know you are not alone! Creating a book about routines may be helpful, checking out books from the library like the one I mentioned above or this list, a special object like a stuffed animal, doll, bracelet or a photo album.

Have your children experienced separation anxiety? How did you handle it?