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Reducing Separation Anxiety in Toddlers and Preschoolers

Note to Readers: Separation anxiety is stressful for children, parents, teachers, and anyone listening to the screams that can accompany saying goodbye. Separation anxiety can be reduced with role-playing. Take turns with your child saying goodbye and returning to a hug and a hello. This method is especially effective when the child gets to play the part of mom or dad. Children are empowered when they realized mom and dad will return. It is especially gratifying when your child copies your techniques to soothe you (pretending to be the child) with the skills you have given them. Remember to check your own anxiety levels surrounding separating from your child.  Your feelings set the tone for your child’s. Children look to their parents for strength and stability.

By Elaine Hirsch

Separation anxiety is common in infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Often, the condition is sudden, bewildering and shocking to parents when it manifests. Many children go through several phases of separation anxiety. It is important to remember that separation anxiety is recognized by experts as both a normal and healthy developmental milestone for children. While it is frustrating for parents, separation anxiety is sometimes a step to teaching children the basics of processing adversity. There are several things that parents can do to help children cope with separation anxiety.

Toddlers have passed the infant form of anxiety, in which it is feared that a parent may simply disappear. Toddlers understand that their parents will return, but they also know that their screams and crying call Mommy or Daddy to action. They are exercising control — they don’t want you to leave, even if they know you’ll be back. Combat this need for control by replacing it with another responsibility. Include children in the departure, in a role such as closing the door. This gives children something to control and eases their anxiety. Speak to toddlers in terms they understand. Be transparent about how long you’ll be gone for. Develop a good-bye ritual with children so they become familiar with parental departures. Experts, including Wendy Bravo, a family therapist from Reno, Nv., suggest letting children cry. Usually, children will cease their tantrums in 15 to 20 minutes.

Preschoolers become anxious when faced with new siblings, school changes, or a move into a new family home. With siblings, children feel that parents may forget about them in favor of the new baby. They attempt to gain attention by reverting to temper tantrums and tears. A new school causes apprehension in young children, as they may be unsure that they can trust their surroundings — the same is true of a new home.

To combat this, building confidence in a child is the key to success at this age. Christine Kodman-Jones, a clinical psychologist from Bala Cynwyd, Pa., recommends a visit to the new school in advance. This gives a child the opportunity to meet his or her teacher, classmates, and familiarize themselves with the surroundings. Always assure children that their anxiety is acceptable. It is important not to stifle a child’s emotions in an attempt to get him or her to act “big.” Plan extra one-on-one time with preschoolers to make him or her feel less threatened by change. Never cave in to regressive behavior, such as a pacifier or co-sleeping. Submitting only makes these habits harder to break. Instead, enforce the idea that nothing is wrong by maintaining the established routine.

Listening to relaxation music can help toddlers and preschoolers distress on the way to school or childcare. Indigo Dreams: Kid’s Relaxation Music is designed with children in mind.