First Day Jitters: Tips for Easing Separation Anxiety in Toddlers

Every preschool teacher has seen it.  

A toddler sheepishly enters their classroom, wide-eyed and a little unsure of what’s going on. For the most part they’re fine … until disaster strikes! Their parents already said their goodbyes but the realization that they’re actually leaving is starting to sink in with the child.

Cue the waterworks—little Mikey is fast approaching a meltdown and is clinging to his parent’s leg as if it’s the last time he’ll ever see them.  After several minutes of coaxing, pleading and reassuring, the little guy moves on and the struggle is over … at least for now.

This fit of fear in toddlers is known as separation anxiety. Separation anxiety in toddlers is a common phase in a child’s life where they become more aware of the outside world and fear the perceived danger of being away from their parent or caregiver.  

This is a perfectly natural response; however separation anxiety can make life difficult for you as a parent as your toddler makes the transition into the preschool classroom. We’re here to help.

Rasmussen College School of Education dean Mary Muhs, along with a host of other child development experts, has offered up these tips for parents to help ease separation anxiety in toddlers.

What to do before drop-off

Prime them for what’s to come

When you’re about to embark on a new experience, you naturally want to gather some information up front. Young children are the same way, but might not have the capacity to ask the questions adults have learned to ask.

"Pretend play helps children process their experiences."

One way to ease a child’s anxiety about their first day is to explain to them in advance what they can expect, according to Anna Seewald, owner of Authentic Parenting. She recommends walking your children through the day and ‘playing school’ to help reinforce what to expect.

“Pretend play helps children process their experiences,” Seewald says.

Adjust sleep schedules

“Develop a bedtime routine at least two weeks prior to the school year beginning,” says author and relationship expert Mary Jo Rapini. “This will help your child feel more rested.”

The first day of school or daycare can be a stressful event for a child, so it only makes sense for parents to be proactive about eliminating any other factors that may cause a child stress, like being tired.

Give them a piece of home

“Give them something of yours or something from home … to keep in [their] backpack or cubby,” says Seewald.  “A familiar object or mom’s smell can help your child to deal with fears and anxiety.”

This might seem a little strange initially, but it’s really no different than you decorating your work desk with pictures of family or other personal belongings. Sometimes all it takes is having something small to provide a connection to the comfort of home.

Establish familiarity

“Helping your child build friendships will help ease their school anxiety,” says Rapini. “If you know someone in the class, inviting that child over with their parent prior to school will help your child adjust more easily.”

Having a friend or a familiar face around can certainly help ease a child’s anxiety. It may not be possible in all situations, but Seewald also suggests setting up a time for children to meet their teacher in the classroom before their first day to familiarize them with both their teacher and surroundings.

“The unknown is a scary thing,” Seewald says. “At least your child will have some image of the school or teacher and a chance to explore their new space.”

What to do at drop-off

Have a routine

“Children feel safe when they can count on what will happen,” says Rapini.  She says establishing a routine that is the same each day will help children predict what’s next and add structure to their life.

Inconsistency in your daily life can put you on edge, and it’s no different for children. Muhs says consistency is the key—drop off and pick up at as close to the same time as possible.  

Don’t be sneaky

Always say goodbye,” says Muhs. “Sneaking out the door can undermine the trust the child has with their parent.”

"Children feel safe when they can count on what will happen."

It’s not easy seeing or hearing your child cry as you walk away, but sneaking out the door is not the answer as children could assume they are being abandoned. You know that’s not the case, but Muhs says it’s important to remember you are essentially your child’s entire world, so a seemingly mixed signal could be very upsetting.

Keep emotions in check

“Children are very sensitive to their parents’ stress,” says Seewald.  “Let your tears roll out when you are alone.”

Drop-off time can be just as emotional for you as it is for your child, but your tears or nervousness can send children the wrong message. The key is to remain calm, say your goodbyes and reassure your child that you’ll be back to pick them up later. If your child begins to cry, Muhs says it’s best to not to look back or acknowledge the child as they make their way out of the door. Instead, you can call and check in with the teacher if you’re concerned—odds are your child will have calmed down by the time you call.

What to do at pick-up

Don’t be late

Rapini says if you’ve set the expectation with your child that you’ll be there to pick them up after a certain point in the day, it’s crucial to be there.  Tardiness can cause children to panic and be hesitant to let you leave them the next time. If you know you’re running late, it’s best to call ahead and inform the teacher or childcare provider so your child isn’t left waiting unexpectedly.    

Avoid interrogating

You’ll likely have a hundred questions to ask your child about their first day, but Seewald says it’s important to give him or her a little time to decompress. Greet your child with affection and let him or her know how much you missed them rather than opening with an interrogation.

Letting go

Separation anxiety in toddlers is only natural. But now you are equipped with all of the tools you need to make sure your next drop off goes as smoothly as possible.

Before you part ways with us, check out 10 Reasons Why Parents Make Great Teachers

Will Erstad

Will is a Sr. Content Specialist at Collegis Education. He researches and writes student-focused articles on a variety of topics for Rasmussen College. He is passionate about learning and enjoys writing engaging content to help current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.

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