13 Ideas to Gently Manage Separation Anxiety in Preschoolers

If you’ve experienced a renewed bout of separation anxiety with your preschooler, you probably understand how frustrating it can be to address. We recently went through this with our own (then) three year old, and I turned to my natural parenting community – the volunteers of Natural Parents Network – for help.1 My friends had so many gentle and useful suggestions.

Today I’d like to share some suggestions with you, along with links to the lovely mamas who offered help. (And to be clear, I’m paraphrasing and adding to the wisdom they shared with me for purposes of this post.)

Ideas to Gently Manage Separation Anxiety

  1. Allow Them to Feel Their Emotions: Remember that emotion is not bad, it is a signal. Many parents believe that our job is to protect children from any type of “bad” emotions (anger, frustration, sadness), but it does not serve children to protect them from feeling sadness and other low emotions. Trying to prevent a child from feeling is simply a different way of trying to control the child, and it will surely backfire, because emotion needs to be expressed. Kids need to be able to feel safe with their emotions, to know that they can work through challenges and difficulties, that we love them and they will be taken care of no matter how they feel. See this as an opportunity to both honor your child’s emotions and to learn and grow from the experience.2
  2. Make the Caregiver’s Space More Familiar: Rather than dropping and running, take time to stay with the child at the caregiver’s home for awhile. This could involve several trips to the caregiver’s house with the sole purpose of staying with the child and playing. If your work is conducive to moving it to a different space, try bringing some over to get a little bit accomplished at the same time. After the space and the caregiver are more comfortable, then plan a trip where you will leave the child for a period of time.3
  3. Help Your Child Visualize the Playdate: Get your little one excited about the playdate by visualizing the steps involved. This would include the ordinary details like getting dressed, preparing a snack, and getting in the car. Then you can talk about all of the fun things your little one can do at the caregiver’s home – what games and toys will she play with? Who will she see? And then talk about the reunion – when you will return, what you will do together after you leave.4
  4. Bring the Caregiver to Your Home: While this might not be an ideal long-term solution, you could consider having your caregiver come to your own home. This would allow your child to remain in their comfort zone, which could make it easier for you to leave the house (or to work in another part of the home).5
  5. Address Your Child’s Needs: In consensual living/gentle parenting circles, this is an ideal first step when addressing any conflict. Depending on how verbal and self-aware your child is, find a way to get to the root of his needs. Talk to him – ask him if anything has changed with his caregiver (for purposes of this post, I am assuming you trust your care provider and have no reason to worry that your child is being mistreated or ignored), if he is worried about anything, etc. Think about what is going on in your child’s life from his perspective – have there been any big changes in his life? Is he going through a developmental spurt? One way to figure out what his needs are is by playing the scenario out with him through imaginative play.6
    Once you’ve gotten an idea of how he is feeling, acknowledge his feelings and needs and address them. Listen, empathize, and reassure him without belittling his feelings. You may not understand why he’s scared, but that does not take away from the fact that he is feeling fear or anxiety.7
  6. Have the Child Leave You: Sometimes it is much more fun to have your little one get picked up to go do a fun activity. The anticipation of getting to go out somewhere with a trusted and loved caregiver might make the separation easier to bear.8
  7. Don’t Spring It On Your Child: Have a calendar somewhere accessible and talk a little bit every day (in positive terms) about any upcoming separation. This may or may not work for your child – it could help him process the anxiety a little bit at a time, or it could make it build up more than it would otherwise.9
  8. Leave Something Physical of Yours: Your child may appreciate having a comfort object that reminds him of you – a shirt, a scarf, a pillow – something with your scent or that you use daily.10
  9. Talk About Your Needs: As gentle/natural parents, we often forget to address our own needs, particularly when our children’s needs seem to be conflicting. But one of the things we’d like to teach our children is to be cognizant and respectful of other people’s needs and feelings. If you have obligations that you cannot meet with a child in tow, it is ok to talk to your child about this. Acknowledge that the separation makes your little one uncomfortable, let her know that she will be with a trusted caregiver and that you will be gone for X amount of time, and that you appreciate her understanding of your needs.11
  10. Have Another Adult Drop the Child Off: Sometimes the child will do better at drop-off with one adult or parent than another. Try it different ways and see if you notice an improvement.12
  11. Gradually Increase the Time Away: If you have the luxury of starting to leave your child in small increments of time and gradually increasing the time away, it might help your child adjust to the separation. If your child can tell time (and if it would not be anxiety producing for her), you can also let her know when you will return.13
  12. Have the Caregiver Help You with the Separation: When you do need to separate, it probably won’t do anyone any good to draw it out for a long time. Talk to the caregiver ahead of time and let him/her know what your expectations are. We made sure that our caregiver was comfortable holding Kieran when we left – even if he struggled, that she agreed to hold Kieran for as long as he was upset, and that she would call us if Kieran was upset longer than a certain amount of time. Be very clear what it is that you and your child need from the caregiver. (Again, I’m assuming that you trust your caregiver to be loving and supportive of your child in this time of anxiety and sadness.)14
  13. Honor Yourself: As hard as it is to leave your child crying with another caregiver, if you have to go – either for a work or personal obligation or because you just need some time to yourself to be an effective mama – you need to honor your own needs. As a parent who has made attachment a priority, your child will be able to weather the storm, and if you’ve communicated clearly with him, he will eventually understand.15

How have you gently responded to separation anxiety?

  1. Where would I be without the gentle discipline gurus and very level-headed mamas I work with at Natural Parents Network?!
  2. Many thanks to Amy at Peace4Parents.com for these wise words.
  3. Advice from Jenn of Monkey Butt Junction and Mandy of Living Peacefully with Children.
  4. More great advice from Jenn of Monkey Butt Junction.
  5. Thanks to Shannon from Pineapples and Artichokes and Acacia, one of Natural Parents Network‘s fabulous NP Mentors for this suggestion.
  6. For a great example of this, see Clown School Express: Playing Away Fears at Mudpie Mama, and check out the book Playful Parenting by Larry Cohen.
  7. Thank you to Kelly from KellyNaturally.com, Stefanie of very, very fine, and Kat from Loving {Almost} Every Moment for this reminder.
  8. Thank you to Mandy from Living Peacefully with Children and Kat from Loving {Almost} Every Moment for this reminder.
  9. Jennifer of True Confessions of a Real Mommy offered this advice.
  10. From Kristin of Intrepid Murmurings.
  11. Many thanks to the wisdom of Kelly of KellyNaturally.com, Kristin of Intrepid Murmurings, and Acacia of Natural Parents Network.
  12. Thanks to Lani from Boobie Time for this reminder.
  13. Advice from Emily at Embrita Blogging.
  14. Many thanks to Lauren of Hobo Mama and Kristin of Intrepid Murmurings for this wisdom.
  15. Wise words from Shannon of Pineapples and Artichokes, Kelly of KellyNaturally.com, and Kristin of Intrepid Murmurings.

About The Author: Dionna

Code Name: Mama CodeNameMama My NPN Posts

Dionna is co-founder of Natural Parents Network. She blogs about natural parenting and life with a toddler-almost-preschooler at Code Name: Mama. She also co-founded NursingFreedom.org, a site dedicated to normalizing breastfeeding anytime, anywhere.

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