How can I help my toddler deal with severe separation anxiety?
Q: How can I help my 3 & 1/2yr old adjust to daycare for the 1st time? She doesn't socialize with anyone there. All she does is sit against a wall & hug her school bag. Anytime anyone even the teacher tries to get close to her she moves away. She started 2 weeks ago, 3 days a week, 9am-2pm. She has always been with me or a close family member. I started her now bc next year she will start preschool and I wanted to prepair her. When I bring her she cries begging me to stay with her.
A: Dear ryan-fangay:
Not every three and a half year old is really ready for a nursery school or day care experience. If you have the option to postpone this program, you might consider giving your daughter a bit more time to grow emotionally beforehand.
On the other hand, if you have no choice, you might try to introduce the experience more gradually. For the first few days, go with her and leave with her after an hour or so together in the school setting. You can sit quietly and watch to see whether your daughter can warm up to some of the children and the activities while you are present in the background. If you succeed here, you can progress to leaving her for brief periods and returning after half an hour. Find out from a sympathetic observer how she appeared while you were gone.
If you must leave her right away, see if you can spend five to ten minutes before departing. You can be calm and soothing, and see whether you can help her feel curious about some activity or interested in another child as a transition while you are gone. It may help to say cheerfully and clearly that "I'll be back soon!" Giving her a favorite toy or blanket to clutch as a reminder of you and of home may help. A ritual of special kisses and hugs can help ease you out the door.
Separation anxiety is a normal phenomenon that occurs during the period when a small child is forming ideas about who is important to them and how they can feel safe in the world. These intense feelings gradually are replaced with different feelings--a need for new faces and new experiences as well as safe familiar ones. You cannot rush this process, which has its own time-table.
It is possible that your daughter will be better prepared for pre-school a year from now if she has a more emotionally secure experience at home with you this year. I would not consider this year a "failure"--I would chalk it up to a trial-and-error approach in which you discovered that this is just not the best time for her to be away from home in a school or daycare setting.
On the other hand, by the time you receive this reply it is certainly possible that your daughter will have discovered that she loves her teacher and new friends and doesn't want to stop attending.
Follow your own instincts here.
Elizabeth Berger MD Child Psychiatrist and author of "Raising Kids with Character"
Answered by Dr. Elizabeth Berger