Separation anxiety: How to handle a clingy child

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Every kindergarten teacher is familiar with the inevitable tears that are shed during the first few weeks of September. In most cases, once the child goes in, sees the other children and all the centres set up for play, the sobbing subsides, usually within the hour. But for some kids, it’s not so easy. Sometimes mom or dad is invited to stay for a while, but it’s best to limit that to a week or so. 

Parenting expert and author Elizabeth Pantley, based in Seattle, Wash., had already successfully squired three children through kindergarten, so imagine her surprise when her fourth child didn’t want to let go. The experience led her to write the sixth in her No-Cry solution series, The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution: Gentle Ways to Make Good-Bye Easy from Six Months to Six Years

Separation anxiety can be very obvious, with much clinging and crying, or more subtle, presenting with nervousness in the morning, trouble sleeping, tummy ache and reluctance to go to school.

The extraction process

  • “Stay calm,” Elizabeth says. “Even though your child is sensationalizing the experience, you don’t have to.” As always, children are looking to you for cues. If you act anxious, they’ll pick up on that.
  • Tell your child what you’ll be doing while he’s at school (working, doing laundry or answering e-mails).
  • Offer encouraging words like ‘I’m sure you’re going to be OK, and I’ll be back to pick you up when school’s done.’ Elizabeth says too many parents make the mistake of saying ‘If you need me, call me.’ Then the anxious child will think, ‘Wow. Will I need her? What might happen to me?’
  • Take your cue from the teacher. If a lot of parents are lingering, feel free to stay as well. “But if it’s too distracting to your child, retreat to the hall.” And don’t stay all day. Make your goodbye short and sweet.

Tips for the long-term

It’s not uncommon for separation anxiety to last a month or more. Elizabeth suggests:

  • Stick to a routine, seven days a week. It’s nice for kids to sleep in and have a break on weekends, but if they’re experiencing anxiety, adjusting to Monday after a different weekend schedule is harder.
  • Attend information nights. This is an opportunity for your child to see the classroom, meet the teacher and other classmates.
  • Nurture budding friendships as much as possible. Walk to school or carpool with another family so that the moment of separation is less pronounced.

With her own son, Elizabeth devised a clever plan to give him a transitional object. “I was making bracelets at the time, so I decided to give him one. I kissed and hugged it and presented it to him saying he would have a piece of me with him all day.” Within days the anxiety disappeared, and thus the Magic Bracelet was born. (A fluorescent orange wrist strap comes with every book, or you can make your own.) Present the bracelet when your child is calm – not at the door of the classroom – and make a ceremony out of it, says Elizabeth. Her son wore it throughout kindergarten and the first week of grade one. “Then that was that.” 

If separation anxiety persists longer than a month, talk to your child’s teacher. Often, even though children are fussing at the classroom door, they are enjoying themselves in the class. A counsellor or therapist can also help.

Published in ParentsCanada, August 2010

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