Separation Anxiety is common in children of all ages–from young children left in childcare to 10-year-olds to grown-up “children”. (Even I, at 44 years old, will occasionally really miss my Mom–especially when there are dirty socks on the floor and I wonder why my mom hasn’t picked them up–then I realize–I AM THE MOM!)
It can be really agonizing for parents when their child screams not to leave and hangs onto them.
A dear friend of mine was having separation anxiety issues with her kindergarten-aged son, normally cheerful and independent, and suddenly he didn’t want to let her out of his sight.
Here are the suggestions I gave her for stories, activities, etc. that help support a difficult transition:
*First thought: Does your child have any loose teeth? Losing teeth often goes hand-in-hand with a child’s emotional life and they can get clingy, weepy, and very attached to Mom. Also, when child is about to go through a major developmental leap, they often “regress” and may re-attach to a favorite baby blanket or start sucking their thumb or clinging to Mom–something they did to self-soothe as a baby that is not appropriate for the older age. But it will usually last a week or two and then the leap happens and all is well.
* Create a routine for drop-off every morning so he knows what to expect and feels reassured. Honor his feelings by telling him you see he is upset, and it’s ok to feel nervous or scared when he’s away from you, and that his teachers are there to take care of him and hug him if he needs it. Be confident as you leave–that he is brave enough and strong enough to handle these feelings, that his teachers will take good care of him, and that you will return to him. It’s hard to leave your crying child!! But be confident and calm so he sees your behavior–at this age they tend to imitate their environment–he may not like it at first, but he will be reassured. He will take his cues from watching your behavior (not so much what you are saying) so if he sees you feeling emotional, stressed, etc. he may mimic that without even being aware of what he’s doing. Your calm confidence will empower him. It’s really good for him to learn there are other adults besides you who will love him and care for him.
*Ask the teacher to re-direct his attention as soon as he arrives–have him count the children in class or give him a special job that is only his–(feeding the class pet, filling bowls with water–something sensory and fun.)
*At home, think about stories and “play” that he loves that would make him feel safe and comforted–some children like building fairy houses where something tiny and vulnerable has a cozy sturdy safe place to be. If he’s not crazy about fairies, you can make mouse houses, beetle houses…anything he responds to. In this situation, I have a great “puppet show” I do about a little mouse finding the perfect cozy safe house–it’s very therapeutic for little ones to feel reassured and nourished.
*One reason children love forts is feeling cozy and safe in their own structure. Build a fort and read stories that reassure him that it’s ok to feel sad or scared about being away from mom, that lot’s of children feel that way, but that she always comes back. That the world is safe, and they are safe, and they will never be left alone. Great stories for this: The Kissing Hand, Owl Babies, Llama Llama Misses Mama, The Mitten, The Root Children, The Sniffles for Bear stories,
*Let him keep a small stuffed animal or “lovey” at school to cuddle and love.
*It sounds simple, but it’s surprising to me how often sticker charts work with children. You can make a sticker chart where each day drop-off goes smoothly, he gets a sticker–at the end of a week, he will get something cool. (Doesn’t have to be expensive). i’m often shocked at what my child will do for things as simple as thumb-puppet-sumo-wrestlers or a Wonder Woman action figure.
*Play games where you disappear and reappear–like hide-and-seek, or where you pretend to go down the escalator or elevator behind the couch–it’s a lighthearted and fun way for him to practice having you out of his sight.
*Freeze dance is another fun and effective activity for children this age to practice self-regulation. It can be hard to control emotions and actions–Freeze dance or Freeze Tag is a great way to practice.
*An amazing book that works wonders: Healing Stories for Challenging Behavior by Susan Perrow. Young children take in the wisdom told through stories on a deep subconscious level–I have seen these stories change behavior very quickly! They are for you to read and re-tell in your own words.
* Also, in Waldorf methodology, they talk about how children are developing the “I” at 5 years old, are starting to learn they are their own person. They are still in fantasy play where they blend with their environment, but glimpsing you’re separate from you parents can be scary. In Waldorf kindergarten, each child makes a wooden sword over several weeks–they choose the wood, they sand it and work to transform substance. They relish stories of overcoming wickedness and evil–stories of knights, brave and true, conquering dragons (who represent negativity and darkness in stories). This time of year, as the sun grows less and less and the darkness grows, the children in Waldorf traditions have Michelamas where they take the swords they have made to “slay” the dragon. After this “festival”, the children spend time making lanterns, encouraging them to light their own inner light for the coming darkness. ——– Oh, and the kids are given a “golden cape (yellow silk) with this verse” I give to you a cape of light, to give you courage, strength and might”. The swords are given with the words You have polished your sword so strong, so bright. Use it only for the right”. I am always amazed at how the children take in these words and activities.