My Once Out Going 4 Year Old Now Has Seperation Anxiety

Updated on December 20, 2007
T.F. asks from Springville, AL
8 answers

I'm not sure what to do with this. My daughter has been in day care for 3 years now, and we have never had a problem with seperation anxiety. She always had a lot of friends and was happy to go see them and play with them (she is an only child). A few weeks ago she was ill and I stayed home with her for a few days, and now we can't hardly get her to go back. Her daddy takes her and says she screams and cries every day. She says no one there likes her. We asked her teacher if she was having any social problems and she was shocked. She said Ava is very active and has many friends. They have called me at work because Ava is saying she is sick, but when I get there she is fine. I cannot miss any more time at work if she isn't really sick. I really feel like we are being manipulated here, but at the same time it is heart breaking to hear her cry and beg us to keep her at home (this usually starts in the evening and she wakes up saying the same thing). I tried playing the Santa card, telling her we will go see Santa today if you are a big girl.... she said she doesn't want to see Santa, she wants to stay home. Please help!

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answers from Knoxville on

My daughter did this too, and even now in 4th grade still tries it after she's been sick a few days. She just liked having the time with Mommy or Daddy and doesn't want it to end! She was fine at daycare or school, but she'd say all kinds of things - still sick, no one likes me, stuff like that, trying to get us to let her stay home. She is an only child also, and we are a very close-knit family. Now that I don't have to work weekends it's not so bad, she knows she has two whole days with both Mom and Daddy - but that was her problem. She just liked being home with us!

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answers from Dothan on

Hi T.,
I found some info for you (look below). My four year old had her tonsils out and she regressed into separation anxiety upon returning to school. Ava knows that it is safe at home and you will take good care of her. That speaks volumes to the type of mother you are to Ava. Ofcourse that doesn't do much for the mother guilt.

Why preschoolers are anxious about school
The most common preschool fears, and how to ease them

Why preschoolers are anxious about school
Let's admit it: Change is hard on all of us. Think about how you've felt the night before you started a new job — and then think about how many new things your child faces when he starts preschool or moves to a new class. "Preschoolers have a lot of fears," says Patricia Henderson Shimm, associate director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York City. "That's because they're often doing something they haven't done before."

In addition to bringing on the telltale tears, a child's preschool fears can cause him to lie awake at night (or sleep more than normal), backtrack on toilet training, or suddenly exhibit aggressive behavior. Your preschooler may know exactly what he's afraid of — the big slide on the school playground, or having to use an unfamiliar toilet — or he may just feel scared about school without being able to tell you why. Either way, a few simple strategies will help him feel more comfortable with the new experiences ahead:

Get him talking. Encourage your preschooler to open up about what's worrying him. If he's not yet very verbal, try playing games that introduce the idea of coming and going: Engage him in a round of hide-and-seek, or slide cars in and out of a toy train tunnel. Then use the game as a launching pad to talk about how the cars — and your child — will always come back when they go somewhere. You can also set an example by gently relating your own fears: "Sometimes I feel scared when I meet a new person, but I try to be brave and say hi anyway."

Don't minimize his feelings. It's natural to want to comfort your child by saying, "Don't worry, you'll make lots of friends at preschool." But this can actually make him feel more intimidated, since it sends the message that you expect him to be Mr. Popularity. Instead, let him know that you sympathize. "It's really scary to go to a new school, isn't it?" you might say. "How could we make it easier?" And, of course, never give your child the impression that you think his worries are silly or trivial.

Let him take the lead. Since preschoolers can be resistant to parental suggestions, involve your child as much as possible in finding solutions to his fears. After all, he's more likely to try a strategy that he thought of — at least partly — himself. For a younger or less verbal preschooler, offer several possible "fixes" for his dilemma, then ask him which he thinks might work. (See below for specific fears and possible solutions to try.)

The most common preschool fears, and how to ease them
"Mommy, don't leave me!" On the first day of school, your preschooler may well cry when you leave. In fact, he may cry every morning for a few days, or even for a few weeks. It's a painful process for both of you, and you'll probably cry, too (just try not to do it in front of your child). Don't panic or feel bad when your child cries, though. The truth is, his tears don't mean that he doesn't like his new school — in fact, he may soon grow to love it. It's just that he doesn't want to be there without you. Preschoolers are still young enough to suffer from separation anxiety, and at the same time are old enough to have some sense of time. So your child knows you won't be coming back to get him any minute, and that's a hard reality to come to terms with.

The first — and perhaps the hardest — thing you have to do is leave, as calmly as you can. Give your child a big hug, tell him you'll pick him up after lunch or nap, and then depart, even if you hear him wailing behind you. (If you see a meltdown coming, enlist a teacher's help in involving him in a game or activity — or simply sitting with him until the emotion passes.) Veteran teachers say the most common mistake parents make is to turn back or prolong good-byes until they turn into tearful marathons. Instead, go outside, shed a few tears yourself, and call the teacher for an update an hour or two later. Chances are, you'll be comforted by a report that your child stopped crying soon after you left and has spent the morning playing with his new friends. It also helps to find out from the teacher what your preschooler did that day, and to talk about it with him when he gets home. "So, you made a collage and played with Jeffrey today?" Some parents also make a nightly ritual of naming their child's new school pals in a song, story, or prayer. Anything you can do to emphasize the daily routine will help your child adjust and quiet his fears.

"Do I have to use the potty?" Preschoolers are naturally frightened by change, and one of the toughest changes they face is learning to use a new bathroom. With so many preschools requiring kids to be potty trained before they're enrolled, using the bathroom can become the focus of a lot of stress — for both you and your child.

If you're panicking because a potty training deadline is fast approaching, take a deep breath — it may be time to rethink your strategy. First, call the school, explain the problem, and find out how hard and fast the rule really is. You may find that the school is open to exceptions, in which case request that your child be one of them. It's not a good idea, experts say, to push a child to potty train before he's ready just to meet an arbitrary deadline. If the school holds firm and your child really isn't ready, you may need to consider holding him back a bit longer. An alternative is to put him in cotton underpants a few days before school starts, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. Many a child has surprised everyone by staying dry (most of the time, at least) when inspired by a classroom full of potty-trained peers. If it's the toilet itself your child is scared of, ask if you can bring a potty chair for him. If so, buy one that's identical to the one he uses at home and keep it at school.

"I hate circle time!" It might look like fun to us, but to a shy or retiring preschooler, circle time can be, well, torture. "For months, Natasha kept saying she didn't want to go to school," says one mother of a 3-year-old. "Finally, I found out it was because she hated circle time. The songs and stories were unfamiliar, and she was terrified when the teacher called on her to talk." The solution in this case was simple: The teacher let Natasha sit on the sidelines for a few weeks, and once she knew the routine, she happily joined in.

One way to help your child weather the spotlight of circle time is to practice beforehand. On the way to school, for instance, you might ask, "What would you like to share today? Do you want to tell about the caterpillar you found?" You might also want to ask the teacher for a list of songs the kids sing in class, then buy a songbook or recording so your child can learn at home. (You can also get song lyrics online at Knowing all the words to "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Wheels on the Bus" might make him more comfortable joining in.

"What if I get lost?" If your child is starting preschool or moving to another class, he may worry about unfamiliar surroundings. Help him feel more comfortable by visiting before school starts. If he hasn't met his teacher yet, make the introductions and encourage him to join in an activity or two. Help him find the cubby or hook where he'll store his things, and let him spend some time playing with all the tempting new materials. That way, on the first day of school you can say, "Hey, now you can go back and finish that game you were playing in the home center!"

Preschoolers often feel anxious about a new playground, especially if it feels big or has challenging equipment. To remedy this, visit the schoolyard after hours so your child can climb on the play equipment or ride his tricycle without the intimidating presence of other kids.

Another strategy is to pair a younger preschooler with an older buddy. An older sibling is ideal for this, of course, but you can also tap into your network of friends and neighbors to find a confident 4-year-old who wouldn't mind showing your child the ropes at preschool.

"What if no one plays with me?" Preschoolers can be just as daunted by a roomful of strangers as the rest of us are. To help your child feel less shy, introduce him to as many of his future classmates as you can on your visits to the school. If a school directory is available, use it to find kids who live near you, then stop by and introduce yourself and your child. Or ask the director for a couple of phone numbers of outgoing kids who might welcome a new friend.

If one of your child's buddies will be in the same school or class, so much the better. Play up the friendship as much as you can, getting the kids together for playdates and emphasizing the fact that they'll both be going off to "big kid" school or moving up to a new class together. If possible, coordinate your schedules so both kids arrive at the same time on the first day and can walk in together. As time goes on, keep snapshots of your child's school buddies on the refrigerator or in his room and talk about them often. After all, preschool is his home away from home, and when he's there, these kids are his extended family.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Shreveport on

My little girl (also 4) goes through this every few months. Like your Ava, Linzi is also an only child. It breaks my heart, but I have to go to work. Like you I can't miss anymore days unless she is really sick. Its a little easier for me because she has a step cousin in the same class as her. I usually get the two of them playing (if possible) then sneak out of the room. Don't always work, and I will go to work with tears in my eyes. I always ask how her day was and what they did. I really don't know how to fix this problem, I just know that she has to stay and I have to work. We both just deal. I am nicer to her on these particular days when she has had a bad morning. I just try to be a little extra sensitive toward her. She is a sensitive little thing that wears her emotions on her shoulder. (Just like momma I'm afraid.)
After she is there a little while she usually calms down.
Good luck hun.
Merry Christmas, and may God bless your family this holiday season.



answers from Memphis on

There is no one that can love her and take care of her as well as you do. She just had a few days of your undivided attention and she wants it all the time. Can you blame her? There is nothing better then Mommy.
Now what to do about it. She needs a security object. She needs something that to her feels like a part of you. Do you have some small piece of a favorite piece of clothing. Something that smells like your daily perfume or antipersperant. A small pillow or stuffed animal that you can wrap in the piece of cloth. Maybe a hankerchif or piece of scarf or bandana. Just some small thing that she can kep with her during the day. Good and best wishes.



answers from New Orleans on

We've been having a very similar experiance with my 4 year old! She LOVED "school"... always talked about all her friends and how much fun she had but when her dad had a change in his work schedule (working nights now) we started sending her only 2-3 days a week to save some money.... Ever since we've started doing this she has been fighting us about going to school...she claims she's too shy (she's NEVER shy!) and that her friends don't like her....
I've determined that it's because we've made school optional, in her eyes, and she realizes that even though she likes school being home with daddy can be more fun.
I think if you stick with it and explain to her that she has to go so that you and daddy can work (if you've taught her the value of money you may want to bring that into it) and she can't stay home by herself yet (who would make your lunch or help you if you can't reach something?!).



answers from Oklahoma City on

i'm going through the same thing with my 4y/o. both of my girls were in an inhome day care and my 4y/o was there for over the last 2 years till we recently relocated back to my home town. she is in a regular daycare now and i expected some adjustment issues at first, but its like the anxiety comes in waves. some days are better than others. its extra hard emotionally for me now because i have a 10mo old that is going through separation anxienty as i have both of them clinging to me at the beginning of the day. there are some days i can't even take a shower with out them in the bathroom with me. they even get antsy when they are at their grandparents house or the babysitter.

i tried the bribe card and it really got me no where. i feel aweful because the 4 y/o is in pre-k half day at the daycare and most mornings i leave her crying in the arms of the director...and she ends up spending at least and hour in the office till she goes to class and has missed alot of class work. the daycare also calls me with the same complaints from my kid that she is sick or just unconsolible. my advice is to be patient and just be firm with her. i have to be firm and just say i love you but i will be back after your nap to get you. i know that it is hard to not go to your child and it rips my heart out to know that she misses me that much, but if you go to her every time she'll never get used to being away from you. just give it time. i don't know if this helps, but at least you know that you are not alone. stay tough! you are an awesome mom! what's best for you is best for the ava! and i love that name!



answers from Austin on

I went through the same thing with my son at his preschool. Stay strong and don't give in. :) Children are smarter than we give them credit for. They know very well how to manipulate. She doesn't understand what is best for her. YOU do. Stand strong and let her know that you love her but she needs to go and that is that. The crying etc, will stop soon when she see's it's not getting much of a reaction. Just be loving, but casual and firm about it all and she will give up. Let the teachers know what is happening at home and tell them to keep and eye out for REAL signs of sickness.

Good luck!



answers from Little Rock on

A couple of thoughts. Is there anything stressful going on in the house? How's your relationship with your husband? Any tension, fighting, financial stress, health/medical issues? Even if she doesn't see or hear the actual conversations, kids are very good at picking up on stress in the mariage relationship. It's their entire security, any perceived threat to it can send them into panic mode.

Our older children became very worried about my husband and I after some close friends divorced. They were almost paranoid that we would also divorce.

Something similar happened after they attended their great-grandfather's funeral. Suddenly death made a little sense. At least they understood Grandpa wasn't coming back, and it worried them that the same could happen to anyone.

Don't forget about any movies/TV they may have watched. Simple situations that don't phase older kids or adults can really leave an impression on younger kids. She may be taking a story and applying it to her life. (For example, in the movie Prancer, the family is dealing with the recent death of the mother).

Try some simple family time activity like game night. If you don't want to play child board games, try Uno or Dominos. A 4 year old may need a little help, but they can learn the basic game. Reading stories is another great one. It combines cuddle time with fun. Finally, be kind but firm. You and your husband have to go to work, but she'll be back home for dinner. Try to be matter of fact about it, downplay the behavior and make a big deal about family time activity.

Good luck!

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