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Managing Separation Anxiety

Getting Ready for Preschool or Childcare

I’ll be dropping off my 3-year-old at a childcare center for the first time this month, and I’m extremely nervous. Do you have any tips for parents? What if there are separation issues?


It’s hard to move into this season, even if you know it’s right for them and necessary for you. But congratulations – your child has spent three years bonding with you! At around two years, he has started separating, inevitably discovering personal power in the word “no.” At three, his speech can be understood by most people and he is developmentally ready for more social play. It’s a great age to begin the childcare or preschool experience, and you can help make this a smooth transition with the following steps: 

Step One:  Stay calm in your body, your face, and your voice. Have you noticed that when a toddler falls down, he often looks up at you to check your reaction? Then he will either dial up and start to cry, or offer some variation of “Oopsie!” and toddle away. You can make the difference in how your child processes difficulty. So here’s an opportunity for self-reflection: What is your experience with separation from loved ones? Can you replace negative or anxious self-talk with something like, “My child is going to begin stretching and growing and finding joy in so many new things!” Or, “It may be a bumpy ride at first, but I’ve chosen a great place for my son, full of warm and loving professionals whose primary purpose is to help him flourish!” 

Step Two:  Set him up for success! Talk with your child’s teacher about what to expect. Find out the schedule, and then role-play or practice some things he’ll experience, including mask-wearing and hand-washing this year. If he’ll be putting up his own coat or bag, let him start this practice on a low hook at home. If you know a friend who will be attending, talk about the special centers and activities that he and a friend might enjoy together. Practice “using his words” to share a toy or ask for help with a task. You might drive to the center and play on the playground, or walk up to the building together in the days before school begins when everything is quiet, so that it will be more familiar on that first day. Finally, give your preschooler a big dose of one-on-one time with you the night before or if you have time in the morning. This will fill his bucket socially and emotionally for his adventure. 

Step Three:  When the day comes, employ the FEEL strategy from Rene Jain, an anxiety specialist for children. 

F = Find your force. Like a Jedi, find that calm, unshakable center to deal with whatever may come. 

E = Empathize. If your child is crying and holding on to you for dear life despite all your preparation, be understanding by calmly reflecting back and naming his fears. You can say something like, “I know this is hard, Pumpkin!
You really want me to stay.” 

E = Empower. This is your teachable moment. Say something like, “Remember what we practiced? A hug from me and a toy for you. What will you pick to play with first?” or, “Look at your hand –remember the kiss I put there this morning? It will stay with you all day, and then I’ll be back!” 

L = Let it go. You have done a great job! Release the guilt and know that you’ve given your child a wonderful new opportunity to learn and grow.

Need more ideas?  There’s nothing more fun and empowering for your child than reading a good book together before bed. I recommend The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, and Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney. You can also contact me for a sweet little book with a practical idea called Simon and the Worry Watch by our own Susan Brown, founder of Everyday Parenting Solutions. 

Susan Townsend Holt, M.Ed, is a board-certified family life coach, parent educator with Everyday Parenting Solutions, and director of family ministry for Community West Church. She specializes in social/emotional skills for calmer and healthier families and classrooms. She is blessed with her husband of thirty-seven years and two adult daughters.
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