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How to calm a Preschooler who cries at goodbyes

infant separation anxiety

It is tough for preschoolers to say goodbye, often feeling anxious and unsure when away from their parents or main caregivers. This common phase in child development, called separation anxiety, is normal but can be tough for both the child and the parent.

Development of Separation Anxiety

Several factors contribute to the development of separation anxiety in infants and toddlers. Understanding these can help caregivers manage and alleviate the distress associated with this condition.

    Cognitive development

    One of the primary causes of separation anxiety is the child’s cognitive development. As infants grow, they begin to grasp the concept of permanence—the understanding that objects and people exist even when out of sight. This cognitive understanding means that toddlers can miss their parents when they leave, resulting in anxiety. However, because their sense of time is not fully developed, infants and toddlers cannot anticipate when their parents will return, fueling unease and stress.

    Attachment theory

    This psychological model, first proposed by John Bowlby, suggests that children form emotional bonds with caregivers that provide them with security and comfort. When separated from their attachment figures, children may experience anxiety because the person who offers emotional security is not present, which may feel threatening to the young child’s sense of safety.

    Temperament of the child

    Some children are more sensitive to changes in their environment or routines and may therefore be more prone to experience higher levels of distress during goodbyes. These children often need more time to adjust to new caregivers or environments.

    Past experiences

    Past experiences can influence a child’s reaction to separation. If goodbyes have been associated with stressful or unhappy experiences in the past, such as a painful medical procedure or a parent leaving for an extended period, the child may be more likely to develop separation anxiety.

    Role modelling by parents

    The behaviour and attitude of parents towards separation can also impact how a child copes with goodbyes. If parents display anxious or ambivalent behaviour during separations, the child may pick up on these emotions and feel that there is something to worry about. Conversely, parents who approach separations with calm and confidence can provide a model for their children to follow.

Also Read: The Attachment Theory: How Childhood Affects Life

Signs of separation anxiety

  • Distress: One common sign of separation anxiety in infants is intense distress when a parent or primary caregiver leaves them, even for a short period. This distress may manifest through crying, screaming, or physical clinging. Infants might also show signs of being wary or anxious around strangers, a condition known as stranger anxiety, which often accompanies separation anxiety.
  • Fear: Preschoolers may express their feelings more verbally. They might articulate their fear of being separated or exhibit reluctance to attend school or other activities without their parents or caregiver. These children might also engage in negotiation or bargaining to delay departure, show reluctance to go to bed alone or have difficulty engaging in independent play.
  • Affects sleep: Both infants and preschoolers experiencing separation anxiety may have trouble sleeping. This could mean difficulty falling asleep, frequent wakefulness during the night, or nightmares about being separated from their parents. Physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches can also occur, often around the time of a planned separation.
  • Behavioural regression: Behavioural regression is another sign that may indicate separation anxiety. For instance, a toilet-trained child might start having accidents, or a child might revert to thumb-sucking or other earlier developmental behaviours during stressful periods of separation.

Although it is normal for children to feel some separation anxiety, it is a concern when this anxiety becomes excessive and continues beyond the usual developmental stage.

Caregivers need to recognise these signs of separation anxiety and adopt strategies that can help ease the transition.

Read more: The Benefits of Art Therapy for Children with Anxiety 

Strategies on how to calm preschooler

To help ease the stress of goodbyes and calm a preschooler who cries, the following strategies can be implemented:

  1. Establish a Routine
  2. One of the most effective methods to manage separation anxiety in preschoolers is to establish a consistent routine. Children thrive on predictability and having a set routine for goodbyes can provide a sense of safety and security. This can include a special hug, a wave out the window, or a unique goodbye phrase. The key is to be consistent so the child knows what to expect each time.

  3. Gradual Acclimatisation
  4. Easing your child into the idea of being away from you may help lessen the anxiety associated with goodbyes. Gradually increasing the time spent at preschool or with another caregiver can help your child become accustomed to the separation.

  5. Familiarity and Comfort Objects
  6. Allow your child to bring a comfort object from home, such as a stuffed animal, blanket, or favourite toy, which can provide a sense of familiarity in the new environment. This object can serve as a transitional object, offering comfort when you are not there.

  7. Communicate and Validate Feelings
  8. It is important to acknowledge your child’s feelings and reassure them that it’s normal to miss someone when they are away. However, also communicate the positive aspects of where they are going, like preschool being a place for fun and making new friends.

  9. Quick and Confident Goodbyes
  10. Prolonged goodbyes can increase anxiety. Parents should keep the farewell brief and upbeat. Showing confidence and calmness can reassure your child that there is nothing to worry about.

    Read More: Social Anxiety in Kids: Meaning and How to deal with it

  11. Consistent Pickup Time
  12. Being on time to pick up your child is important. It builds trust and lessens anxiety when they know you will arrive at a specific time.

  13. Empowerment Through Choice
  14. Giving a child a sense of control can alleviate feelings of helplessness. Let them make small choices, like selecting their outfit for the day or choosing a snack for the ride home.

  15. Practice Absences
  16. Practising short periods of separation during non-stressful times can help a child get used to being away from their parents. This can include staying with a relative or attending a playdate.

  17. Professional Support
  18. If separation anxiety persists or worsens, consulting a child psychologist or counsellor can provide additional strategies and support to help your child cope with goodbyes.

The application of these strategies should be tailored to the individual child, as each child may respond differently. It is important to maintain open communication with preschool teachers and caregivers, as they can provide additional insights and support during the separation process.

Read more: Separation Anxiety in Children: Causes, Symptoms, Solutions

At EuroSchool, we take a holistic approach to managing separation anxiety in preschoolers. It focuses on building trust, establishing routines, maintaining communication with parents, and providing a supportive and nurturing environment.

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