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Ask the Experts

Help! My Preschooler has Separation Anxiety

By Dr. Lisa Hunter Romanelli, Child Psychologist

Question:

My son has been going to preschool four days a week for five months. Every morning when I drop him off he has separation anxiety. He cries and doesn't interact with the other children. I have visited the school at recess and found that he is sitting alone on the bench looking at the other kids playing. He seems bored and unhappy, and doesn't seem to like preschool at all. At home we only speak Spanish, so I think that may be the source of the problem, but I'm not sure. How can I help him feel happier and more involved?

Answer:

It's typical for children to have difficulty separating from Mom or Dad when they first start preschool. Being away from the comforts and routine of home can be a scary experience for young children and it takes time for them to adjust to a new environment and people. Even though your son has been going to preschool for five months, it appears he has not yet made this adjustment and may need extra help to do so.

I'd encourage you to speak to your son's teacher to find out what he's like after you drop him off. Does he continue to cry for an extended period of time after you leave? Does he respond to consolation offered by the teacher? Does he interact with other children during structured activities? Does he speak to other children or adults in the classroom? Answers to these questions will help you to assess how much difficulty your son is experiencing in school. Although you have observed him during recess, it is important for you to find out what he's like during other times of the day.

Depending on what you learn from your son's teacher, it may be necessary to request additional support for him in school. For example, if it appears that he has difficulty interacting with other children, you could ask the teacher to assign him a "buddy" to play with during free time or to give him classroom chores(e.g., handing out snack) that encourage interaction with other children.

Language may play a key role in your son's reluctance to interact with others. It is natural for a child to remain silent for a period of time in the beginning stages of language learning. A child needs time to listen and understand and not always be forced to speak. However, after a number of months of little interaction some of the following might be tried:

  • Have the teacher find him a Spanish buddy (assuming there is another Spanish speaker in the class.)
  • Ask the teacher to allow him to express himself in Spanish if he wishes.
  • Make him aware that speaking Spanish is an asset not a barrier.
  • Have the teacher give him key roles in cooperative learning/playing groups
  • Ask the teacher to encourage him to participate in activities which do not require fluent English skills.

In addition to working with your son's teacher, I would recommend talking to him about his anxiety about being away from you and how he can help himself feel better. Several children's books could be helpful in this regard: Into the Great Forest: A Story For Children Away from Parents for the First Time by Irene Wineman Marcus and Paul Marcus, PhD; Mommy, Don't Go by Elizabeth Crary; and Don't Want to Go to School: Helping Children Cope with Separation Anxiety by Nancy Pando.

If working with your son's teacher and speaking with him about his anxiety doesn't lead to any significant improvement, I would recommend having him evaluated by a mental health professional to determine if he has Separation Anxiety Disorder, a fairly common mental health problem that affects approximately 4% of children and adolescents. Children with Separation Anxiety Disorder display extreme distress when separated from their parents, may worry about the safety of their parents, are reluctant to attend school, may refuse to attend school, may have difficultly sleeping alone, and often complain about physical symptoms (e.g., stomach aches, headaches) when separation is anticipated. If your son does have Separation Anxiety Disorder, you and a mental health professional (particularly one with expertise in cognitive behavioral treatment) can work together to address his symptoms.


Dr. Lisa Hunter Romanelli is the Director of Programs at the Resource for Advancing Children's Health (REACH) Institute, a nonprofit organization based in New York City. Hunter is also a voluntary faculty member in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Columbia University and a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City, specializing in cognitive behavioral treatment for children and adolescents.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

06/6/2011:
"My son has seperation disored and I would like to know how I can get him from worring too much about me leaving him at day care. he is at home with me right now cause I have no job and I have problems with him hanging on me. I have and still are takeing him to Therapy for his anger and sepration problems. I adoptted him in Sept.of 2010 and he was my great nephew now my son. What should I do at home to help him."
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