Separation Anxiety for a 3 Year Old???

Updated on July 20, 2010
J.K. asks from Woods Cross, UT
15 answers

I have a 3 year old little girl who I think at one time might have adjusted well if I had not coddled her to much. How ever I did and now I seem to be paying for it. I have just enrolled her in preschool and I even stay but I have to be outside in the waiting room. Now not only does she cry before i drop her off but the night before talks about it and frets about it all night and even cry's. She is to the point she is stressed and always asking me "Am I going to preschool tomorrow?" then if I change the subject or answer her yes she still cry's then asks me if I can stay a lot of minutes with her. Am I to late on training her to be independent? Will she grow out of it before Kindergarten when I will have to leave her crying or not? I don't want her to hate school becuae of it. Please any one help me with this one.

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answers from Dallas on

This might not be the most popular answer, but why force preschool on her? I have mine in, but she is a very social butterfly and doesn't care about being left. She looooooves it! If she were to freak out for more than a week, I would probably have pulled her out. There are other ways for her to get her socialization and at three, she wants mommy. You could do playdates, gymnastics, kindermusik, etc. instead.

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answers from Dallas on

This might not be the most popular answer, but why force preschool on her? I have mine in, but she is a very social butterfly and doesn't care about being left. She looooooves it! If she were to freak out for more than a week, I would probably have pulled her out. There are other ways for her to get her socialization and at three, she wants mommy. You could do playdates, gymnastics, kindermusik, etc. instead.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Denver on

Some kids adjust better than others. In my opinion preschool for a 3 year old is unnecessary. Take her home and enjoy her being little and I promise she will happily wave good bye to you by the time Kindergarten rolls around.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Kansas City on

My oldest daughter (now 25) was scared of people. She hated it if anyone talked to her. She would cry easily and hated the church nursery. I started an in-home daycare when she was 2. After that I always worried that she would hate school. Her birthday is in December. So she was a late 5 when she started school. I worried for nothing. She never fussed at all.

As far as preschool goes, I think you should take her out. They have prescious little time to be little. I don't think there is any reason to baby her. Teach her to pick up her toys, keep her room clean, listen to you, follow instructions, be polite, etc. Take her to places where she'll be around kids some. Find a play group maybe. But by all means, why send her to a place that she dislikes? Maybe a part-time in home daycare might get her a little more prepared? Many times we in home providers have an odd day here or there when other parents are gone. We can take these gaps and make them available to stay at home moms for their little ones to come and play and be part of a group. BUT,for kids that have separation anxiety it can be difficult to go so little.

Talk with her about her fears. Ask her if anyone is picking on her. There's always a reason they feel this way. But it could be nothing to do with the school and just that she loves you so much.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Houston on

Maybe you can encourage her to make friends, and schedule a playdate with a child from the preschool, so she has something to look forward too.

Staying around can actually make the situation worse, so I would suggest to drop her off and pick her up early. Do this a few days... each day spreading the pick up time until later. She will eventually become comfortable and oklay with it. After a short while lot of kids cry for a minute or two, and then are fine once their parents leave.

Talk preschool up, find out the schedule so you can help her look forward to it, "tomorrow, you will be learning about whales and finger painting!".

Also, I was a nursery leader at church for a while. The children whose parents hovered and made a big deal out of leaving... usually had children who screamed and cried. Keep it direct, simple, one hug and kiss and a promise to come back later. But when a parent becomes over emotional about leaving a child, that can help create the anxiety. This was a great question answered by a professional:

"Beware of overprotection. Have faith in your child to handle change, even though it may be a little painful and scary. One problem that occurs from overprotection, is not wanting to allow your child to experience feelings and to deal with them. It is normal for some children to feel sad when separating from parents (even for short times.) It is a great life lesson to discover that they will not continue to feel sad and that they are capable of learning to feel better again. It is also a lesson in trust that those you love do come back again. "

If you feel she isn't adjusting, try socializing her something less hands off, like what the first mom suggested, play groups, reading time at libraries, gym, swimming... You can enroll her in preschool next year.

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answers from New York on

I own a preschool and have dealt with separation anxiety. You didn't mention how long she has been going. If it has been a while and she is still not adjusting then I would take her out and try again later. If it is under a month then I would stick with it. There are some things you can try. Talk about it with her and ask what she is afraid of. Is she scared you won't come back? Is she afraid of the other children? Does she like her teacher? If she can't give a definite answer then try bringing her a little early. Sometimes shy children do not like walking into a classroom that is up and running, it can be intimidating. Try going 15 minutes early and walk her in when there are less children and see if that helps her. I also would not stay, hanging around only makes it worse trust me. She needs to learn to rely on herself and her teachers for comfort, with you there she will not mingle or separate. You can help her choose a special snack for her to bring into school (check with the teacher of course) and have her pass it out with the teacher. Sometimes that puts them in control and helps them to feel comfortable. Also, give her a picture of you so she can look at you when she misses you and tell her you are always with her. Sometimes it takes time but in most cases children will end up running into school. Good luck I know how difficult it is to see your little one so upset.

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answers from Pittsburgh on

Hi J..

This is a tough one for us mom's. Tugs at the heartstrings. And it doesn't help matters at all when we blame ourselves, so know that you have done what you felt was best for your child, and you will continue to do that.

It does sound like your daughter is experiencing separation anxiety, but I just wanted to share a little info from our first experience in preschool, just in case something like this could be going on with your daughter.

My son (now 4 1/2) started preschool last year, and went 2 half days each week. He started out just fine, had no problem with me leaving him there, not even on the first day. He did great for the first couple months, but after a short while, he started seeming to be distressed by going to school. There was one incident where a child came out of the restroom, and swatted my son in the forehead with his belt buckle (who puts a 3 year old in a belt, with a buckle in preschool? but I'll digress on that one.) I just let that go, and figured it was an isolated accident. But my son's distress continued, to the point where you are, where the day before, he'd be asking if he had preschool the next day. If I said yes, he'd cry and whine that he didn't want to go. And when we would get to school, he'd cry for me to stay with him, and he'd want me to hold him, and didn't want me to leave. Eventually, I'd get him calmed down with the teacher's help, and I'd leave him there, with a huge pit in my stomach, counting the minutes til I could pick him up.

As it turned out, there were a couple of kids in the class who had terrible behavior, and were regularly physically aggressive with the other kids. The teacher had been trying to work with the kids by implementing consequences for the behaviors, but had met with resistance from the parents, who didn't see their child's behavior as problematic. Long story short, she recommended I move my son from the afternoon to morning class, (as well as a couple other well behaved children), where the classroom dynamic was far more peaceful, and the children were much more docile. And thank God she did. My son was like a different child. Well, actually, he was like the kid that started preschool that year. No more crying or asking me to stay from the first day in the new class until the end of the year. It turns out that he and a couple other kids were so affected by the chaos in that other class that they were just overwhelmed. The teacher told me that there were days that she'd have my son on one knee, and another little girl in the class on the other, and together, they'd just be looking at the chaos in the room wondering what on earth is going on in there. Now, I get that perhaps the teacher should have had more control of the kids in her room, but whatever the case was, I'm just so grateful she told me what was going on, because it DEFINITELY was the reason my son started having such fear about being at school.

I'd try to look into whether there could be some dynamic in your daughter's class that could be distressing to her. It was a huge relief when we found out about what was going on in my son's class, and moved him. And I agree, we don't want our kids to develop their fundamental feelings about going to school from a bad first experience.

Best wishes to you. I know how tough this can be.



answers from Philadelphia on

I don't think separation anxiety has anything to do with coddling your child. She is having a hard time adjusting and this isn't an odd thing. Have you tried giving her time and verbal cues that you are about to transition from one activity to another? By this I mean telling her what is going to happen before it happens so she has time to prepare herself. If that doesn't work I would pull her out. I'm not a fan of day care and if you can keep her home that would be better for her. You can do activities at home and there is a ton of info online to help you. Consider joining a playgroup and keep things fun for her.


answers from Phoenix on

My daughter is 10 now and I look back and remember the days of preschool and that she cried at school. I guess we both had lots of separation anxiety. I won't bore you with all the issues we faced because your probably headed that way. The best thing you can do is be strong and not look back. The teachers will help her through. You staying there is not going to make it any better. Just drop her off and leave. They have your number and will call you if anything gets to the point where they can not handle it. I really had to have faith in the teachers and staff. It was a christian preschool and they did a wonderful job.
She will get over it, but each child is different and it may be 6 months of this. But you have to be in control. It will get worse if you pull her out and send her again later. That is just my opinion.
My daughter loved Kindergarden and we faced this one year of preschool and even though a month would go by and she would be better.......she would re-lapse. So prepare for that. Good luck, love, pray, hug, reassure her...time will heal her anxiety and yours.



answers from Colorado Springs on

I would back up, maybe take her out of preschool--she's still so young, and there's time for this later. I would ease her into social situations, with you being very available to her (like if she wants to play with others at a playdate, fine, and if she needs you for a few minutes in between playing, fine too). Maybe take a mommy and me class of some sort together, where you are there, but she is also with other kids. Ease into this gradually. You have done nothing wrong, she's just a bit unsure about the whole social thing right now. Don't put such pressure on yourself and her. And try (I know it's so hard as a mother) not to compare how she's doing to other kids. She'll be fine. She's only been around three years, for goodness sake. Just back up and give her support, and it will make her more confident in the end. Studies show that little ones who get what they need emotionally are less clingy as they grow than kids who must "tough it out." Lots of kids don't go to preschool until 4, or not at all. Think about why you want her to go--for me it was to give my child some experience socially. If she's clearly showing you that it's overwhelming her, it's defeating the purpose, and there are other, less dramatic ways of giving her social experiences. Slow down, and you will both be less traumatized. She's only little once. Good luck. Be kind to yourself, mamma!



answers from Denver on

It is never too late and you did nothing wrong, some kids are just insecure with new places and people. I have two I raised them both the same and one dives in and plays with new kids the other clings to me for an hour or so before venturing out. I am not sure about what kind of pre-schoole you are in and how often she goes, but if you can cut back to just a few days a week and sort of ease her into it that may help. Also try to set up play dates with kids in her class so she has a buddy to look forward to seeing. Another thing I have been doing is set up situations for your daughter to do things with out you, go to the park with a friend or family member and then praise her for being a big girl. Recently I found out both my kids respond so much better when I praise the good instead of time out for the bad. It sounds like a no brainer, but I think we get busy and forget to praise our kids. Even the little things like getting dressed by herself or any independance she shows praise her for it. I also think the threes are a scardy cat stage as my son recently won't go down slides or go in bouncy houses with out time to warm up to it. He used to jump right in but these things are all of a sudden scary so I think with reassurance and consistancy this too shall pass.



answers from Salt Lake City on

No need to "train" your child--she's wonderfully healthy and normal and attached to the people who matter most to her. Congrats on raising a child who values people more than things! That's so rare and beautiful these days!
At age 3, she is still very much a baby, and that is OK. Yes, she will grow out of the stress and clinginess with time, but it is so important that you meet her needs for security and connectedness instead of using all your energy to convince her those needs are not real. You are not coddling if you are meeting her needs, so spare yourself any guilt you may feel from being a terrifically sensitive, intuitive, responsive mother. A need met will disappear; a need denied festers forever--look at all the teens who have shut out positive adult mentors in favor of total peer-orientation and all the adults in unhealthy relationships. A little more healthy attachment and less "independence" could have served them well as they developed into mature, confident people.
Independence in very young children is overrated--learning to trust is a more valuable skill at age 3, I believe. And forced independence often looks like nervous insecurity in small children, instead of happy confidence.
If you need this preschool to work as a child-care arrangement while you work, consider reading Elizabeth Pantley's book "The No-Cry Seperation Anxiety Solution." Pantley is gentle and respectful and her techniques are positive and effective. Consider making a point of what Dr. Gordon Neufeld calls "transferring attachment," where she is allowed to be with both you and the teacher and you make it clear that she is meant to trust and respond to the teacher: "Jenny, this is Miss Smith. She knows where all the crayons are and she is ready to read you a story. I'm leaving, but while I'm gone, Miss Smith will help you. I'll be back at noon. Thank you, Miss Smith, for helping Jenny."
But if this preschool is not necessary and is just meant as a "fun experience," seriously consider backing out and enjoying your baby. There is no academic experience she needs right now that you cannot provide for her by spending meaningful time together reading, talking, and doing ordinary daily activities.
Another book that helped me understand my children better is "Hold On To Your Kids" by Gordon Neufeld. It really changed my perspective on the perceived importance of independence in children.
Best wishes!



answers from Colorado Springs on

It tears your heart to hear your child cry, however, it's fairly common for this to happen. Here are some things to help with the transition for your daughter and yourself that I've found to help when my kids were "clingy".

Read a story book about a kid who is having those feelings, Bernstein Bears books, and talk about it how the bears are feeling, and it seems like you feel that way too. How did the bear solve her problem?

Talk to the teacher and have her make a special welcome, helper of your daughter for the first minutes she's in the room, have a copy of the book in her room.

Let your daughter carry or wear something of yours for the day, or put a small snapshot of the two of you taped in her cubby.

Tell your daughter that you will ask her about 3 things that were fun for her that day, so she has to watch for those fun things and tell you, and you will tell her 3 fun things you did.

Tell your daughter that you know she feels uneasy about going to preschool, that you used to feel like that, and that she will be OK "after a while".

I hope this helps!!

Shirley, mom to 3!



answers from Denver on

I did this to my first son too and, yes, he still hates to go to school or anywhere for that matter and he is in 5th grade this year. One tip that did help me though is his teacher in 2nd grade. She knew the trouble I was having and told me to be sure to NOT let him see ME get upset about it. She said to spend my trip to school talking about how excited I was to hear about his day when I picked him up and brag about how great school it. She also said to NOT give any energy to his crying or spend time talking about it. She said to just keep talking about all the great things he gets to tell me about school. Then I would spend a lot of time after school hearing his stories. It was extremely hard not to cave and get upset when he was upset, especially being a natural coddler, but it was worth it. These tactics did help - A LOT. I wish I had started it when he was in preschool.

Now all that being said, I do have one little tidbit to add. I was so disturbed with how my son was about school when he first started preschool that I decided to do a random drop by in the middle of the day. Much to my surprise, he was sitting in a corner, all alone, crying and I caught the teacher giving him a hard time and taunting him. Believe it or not I kept my cool and decided to wait it out a bit, I didn't want to jump to conclusions and assume she was terrible. I wanted to see if maybe this was an extenuating circumstance. Low and behold it continued for about 45 minutes, him sitting there feeling sad or crying and her coming over and taunting him. I finally went in and asked her what was going on, she said that he had been sitting in the corner for the last two weeks he had been in class and she figured he would stop eventually. I asked her why I was not informed and that spending the whole day in the corner crying was simply not ok. She said that she didn't think it was a big deal. For the record, he had moved from another class where he did just fine and only cried when I dropped him off but had fun the rest of the day. Needless to say, I pulled him that day and found a new preschool for him. His new preschool was a perfect fit for him and we never had a problem to that extent again. In short, you may find that you daughter might need a preschool that better fits her. It's worth some investigation.

Good luck!


answers from Denver on

It's tough to leave your little one when she wants you so badly. My kids have both been in daycare since they were about 5 months old. It was difficult for them at first but now that they've been going for a while (they are 1.5 and 2.5), they love it and walk right in, sometimes not even saying goodbye. I don't think it's too late, although I do think it's better to start a bit earlier rather than later with this type of socialization if you want them to be a little more outgoing by kindergarten. That said, your l.o. is only 3, so she is still young! It will take time; I would completely cut the cord and actually leave during this time, though. Then she will have to deal with her emotions on her own. Better now than when she is 15.



answers from Salt Lake City on

Sounds pretty normal for a 3 year old!!!! Try some of the suggestions others have given, talk with her about school when you have some one-on-one time. Find out what's really going on from your daughter or the teacher. Don't worry too much, but if it persists for another year or two, recognize this:

It's normal for a child to be concerned about preschool, but not normal for it to consume her throughout the day, nor is it normal when she interrupts enjoyable experiences throughout the day with thoughts and worries about preschool. It's probably not school she hates, but whatever she is worried that relates to school. (see if you can find out exactly WHAT she is worried about, for my daughter it was that she was worried I wouldn't be there to pick her up after that got her stomach in knots. I had been late a couple of times and it had made her extremely nervous that I wouldn't show up at all)

I saw anxiety manifest at around age 4 in my daughter, but didn't really clue in completely till kindergarten. Wish I had some great resources for it. I've tried quite a few things. I'm getting ready for therapy now (age 8). Hang in there. Realize that she is having a very difficult time managing her anxiety in relation to preschool.

I got a book on Amazon about a tomato plant that a child was growing. It was wonderful to have tomatoes for herself and her family. But soon the plant got so big that there were tomatoes everywhere, and she couldn't pick them all, bottle them all or juice them all. They were rotting, etc... Soon all she was doing was taking care of trying to pick tomatoes that there was no more time to play with friends or relax with family. Relate the story to thoughts, how when we let out thoughts grow too big and let them worry us, they affect our lives like a huge tomato plant.

If it persists beyond this school year, explain that it is normal to be worried about preschool, but that we shouldn't think about it all the time. Encourage her to "lock" those worries into a big box in her brain, and we'll discuss it at a certain time together (like bed time or after lunch). See if you can get her to put the thoughts away for a later time and make sure you discuss it with her later.

Recognize that there is probably nothing YOU can say that will take these fears away. Usually having a plan does NOT dispel their worries. They must take control of it, refuse to think about it all the time, and bring it out at a more appropriate time later on to discuss it. Talk as much as you can when it's time to talk. You can roll play coping skills with whatever is her primary concern (act out different scenarios together or with dolls and puppets). Talk about symptoms of worrying, like stomach butterflies, clammy hands, etc... and tell her these are clues to her that she needs to think about something else for a while.

When she is in the situation at school, encourage her to look for another child that might be nervous too, and become friends with them (teachers can help with this). If you're feeling nervous about things at school, there is sure to be other kids feeling the same way too. You can try to help them feel better by being their friend, playing with them, sitting by them, and trying to get them to laugh (laughing is a great tool). Focus her energy on someone else. Definitely talk with the teacher about the anxiety problem, and work with him/her on methods and vocabulary that will help your child cope better.

Fish oil is the best first defense against anxiety in children. Go liquid, as the capsules are too large. I saw some improvement with that, but this is probably a problem that you will have to watch as she grows and matures. You don't want this turning into anorexia or suicide during puberty when hormones and life goes crazy!

Good luck! Right now it sounds totally normal for age 3. If it persists, no worries, she will get through it, because she has a wonderful mother who loves her and is concerned about her!

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