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Helping Your Child With Separation Anxiety

How can you make sure you're not making your child's anxiety worse when you leave them at daycare, preschool or with the babysitter? Here are seven tips for parents.

I've worked in early childhood education for decades and have seen hundreds of tortured goodbyes. It's hard to leave when your child is screaming and crying for you. Yet separation anxiety is a normal part of child development for babies and toddlers.

Unfortunately, many parents make it even harder without realizing it. Here are some sure-fire ways to make drop-off easier.

1. Give a preview.

Visit a new child care center or sitter several times with your child before leaving him for the first time. Sit in on circle time or stand nearby while your child's future caregiver holds or plays with him. Building familiarity will make the transition easier.

2. Talk about what to expect.

If he is starting preschool, read books featuring his favorite characters heading to school. Tell him about all the fun things he'll get to do – play, paint, play outside. Go over the plan for drop-off, keeping it upbeat.

For example, "I'm going to walk you to your classroom and help you put your backpack in your cubby. Then you are going to have so much fun while I go to work! I packed you peanut butter and jelly for lunch, and I'll be back after nap." Model that it's no big deal, and your child will pick up on that idea.

3. Don't sneak out.

I've seen many parents sneak out the door as soon as their child looks away. This makes the child more upset when he realizes mom or dad left without a goodbye or reassurance that they'll be back. These children were sometimes inconsolable all morning. Always let your child know you're leaving and that you'll be back.

4. Be quick.

Prolonging the goodbye is also traumatic. I've seen parents drag it out so long that both child and parent are exhausted! Walk your child in, give him a cheerful hug, kiss and goodbye. Then, head out.

5. And keep going.

Returning to pick him up again if he cries delays the process. Say goodbye and go. Call later to check up if it will make you feel better.

6. Be on time.

Always return on time. This builds trust and will allow your child to become comfortable in knowing you'll always come back.

7. Repeat.

Separation anxiety is a phase. It will pass, but your child may deal with short bouts of it at different points. You will both get through. Savor knowing your child wants you around so badly – right now. He'll be jumping at the chance for independence before you know it.

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