It’s your child’s first day at her new preschool and when you try to leave, she bawls. This isn’t unusual on the first day, but you begin to worry when she continues to cry at drop-off time for the next three days.
What your child is experiencing is common and shouldn’t prompt too much concern: separation anxiety, says Dr. Mery M. Taylor, a psychologist at CHOC Children’s.
Separation anxiety often happens when small children make big transitions to new places. This begins in toddlers at age 2 or 3. Crying on the first day of preschool is normal and usually subsides after the child becomes engaged in the new environment, she says.
“It’s fairly common for kids to have separation anxiety when they are entering a new environment, like going to preschool or starting kindergarten or a new first grade,” Dr. Taylor says. “It’s not a disorder until it is prolonged.”
Separation anxiety becomes a disorder when the child cries before going to preschool for more than a week, or throws up, won’t eat, or is inconsolable for an hour. Under these circumstances, parents should be concerned.
Parents who suspect their child has a separation anxiety disorder should talk to their doctor. In the meantime, Dr. Taylor suggests parents try these steps:
- Talk to the child and prepare her for what’s ahead. Explain what will happen at preschool, how long she will be there, what she will play and when she’ll be picked up to go home.
- Parents should think about how they react in a situation where their child is looking to them for behavioral cues. Are they showing signs of anxiety or stress? If mom seems panicked or sad when dropping off her toddler at preschool, the child is likely to be scared too. Parents should act calm and be consistent.
- Avoiding a stressful situation enhances the child’s fear. Parents should employ a systematic approach to desensitizing a child. If preschool causes the separation anxiety, ask the child to imagine he is there, then drive by the school, and next take him there to see it.
- Teach kids to engage in positive self-talk to help them cope. Have them say things like, “I can do this” and “I can’t wait to learn.”
- Teach your kids some physical things they can do to calm down, like yoga or walking the dog.
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A CHOC Children’s postdoctoral fellow in clinical psychology offers tips for parents, including the five E’s of helping a child navigate the emotional aftermath of a traumatic event.
It’s hard for grownups to make sense of a tragedy, so consider how difficult it must be for children.
Depending on their age and media exposure, children may know more than grownups think. And even if unaware, children still might sense tension and anxiety from adults around them.
Mental Health America has offered these ways that parents can help their children cope with tragedy-related anxiety:
Quick tips for parents
- Children need comforting and frequent reassurance of their safety.
- Be honest and open about the tragedy or disaster.
- Encourage children to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing.
- Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.
- Reassure young children that they’re safe. Provide extra comfort and contact by discussing the child’s fears at night, telephoning during the day, and providing extra physical comfort.
- Get a better understanding of a child’s feelings about the tragedy. Discuss the events with them and find out their fears and concerns. Answer all questions they may ask and provide them loving comfort and care.
- Structure children’s play so that it remains constructive, serving as an outlet for them to express fear or anger.
Grade school-aged children
- Answer questions in clear and simple language.
- False reassurance does not help this age group. Don’t say that tragedies will never happen again; children know this isn’t true. Instead, remind children that tragedies are rare, and say “You’re safe now, and I’ll always try to protect you,” or “Adults are working very hard to make things safe.”
- Children’s fears often worsen around bedtime, so stay until the child falls asleep so he or she feels protected.
- Monitor children’s media viewing. Images of the tragedy are extremely frightening to children, so consider limiting the amount of media coverage they see.
- Allow children to express themselves through play or drawing, and then talk to them about it. This gives you the chance to “retell” the ending of the game or the story they have expressed in pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.
- Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Part of keeping discussion of the tragedy open and honest is not being afraid to say you don’t know how to answer a child’s question. When such an occasion arises, explain to your child that tragedies cause feelings that even adults have trouble dealing with. Temper this by explaining that adults will still always work hard to keep children safe and secure.
- Adolescents may try to downplay their worries, so encourage them to work out their concerns about the tragedy.
- Children with existing emotional problems such as depression may require careful supervision and additional support.
- Monitor their media exposure to the event and information they receive on the Internet.
- Adolescents may turn to their friends for support. Encourage friends and families to get together and discuss the event to allay fears.
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