Does your child ever get anxious or upset when you need to leave them? Check out these tips.
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As I dropped my kids at their preschool the other day, there was a new child in the class who was visibly upset. He was screaming and crying as the teacher helped untangle his fingers from his mother’s coat, as she walked head-down toward the door to leave. I think tears were in everyone’s eyes. It’s incredibly difficult, for the mum who is already late to work and has a classroom full of curious and sympathetic eyes watching as she struggles to walk away from her pleading child, for the teacher who is trying to support the child whilst managing 20 other “Good Mornings”, and most of all for the child, who’s brain is in full fight or flight mode and everything in their body is screaming “No, no, please don’t leave me, I don’t feel safe or OK right now”.
You might know by now that at HMC, we truly believe in a proactive, rather than a reactive approach when managing children’s behaviour. When we (and our kids) feel like we have a plan, we understand our plan, and we know what our job is and what comes after that, we feel much calmer and our confidence is higher. Now, this doesn’t mean we don’t have our off days, of course we do! Additionally, our children are humans, not robots, and they have their own moods and perceptions that can vary things unexpectedly. But in general, if we all feel proactive, it’s a lot easier to deal with challenges because we feel safe and we can predict what comes next. So,here are some tips for managing separation anxiety in situations like school drop-offs.
Create and rehearse your goodbye strategy, at home where everyone feels safe and comfortable. Have your child be part of creating this strategy. Make it short and simple, and practice practice practice. Your child should be bored silly of it by the time you are done.
Do a practice run, on the weekend if you can, or in the school holidays when no one else is around. Do as many practice runs as you and your child need to, again, until you are both bored by it. Make sure your practice run follows your goodbye strategy in point 1.
Be educated about separation anxiety. Know what is happening so you are informed. Know how parents can accidentally reinforce anxiety in their children, and how to avoid doing this. A great resource for you is this book.
Have a transitional object. This might be a comforting teddy, an item of yours, or something special you have created together. Or it could be something imaginary, like this. Use this in your routine and when you are practicing.
Be aware of you own reactions. Model that you believe it’s a safe place for your child to go. Show excitement for them to experience it.
Validate their feelings. Their experience is akin to you freaking out because you’ve been left alone by your loved one, in a strange city with an unfamiliar job to do. It’s tough, and they will be helped by some empathetic reflections by you, such as “Yeah, I can see it’s really tough for you when I go to leave, you get really worried”.
On D-day, model a positive goodbye. If you child sees you are anxious about leaving them, it can make their fear worse. Be comfortable with the idea that school is a safe place, and let them know you truly believe that.
Hopefully these tips are helpful. They can of course be modified to suit any situation where you need to leave your child without their secure caregiver. We’d love to know if they made things a little easier with you and your little one. Remember that if difficulties persist and you and your child need a little (or a lot) more support, seeking help from a qualified mental health practitioner is probably a good idea.
Olivia Boer is a Clinical Psychologist and the Director of Healthy Mind Centre Launceston, a group allied health practice in Launceston, Tasmania.