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how to help 3.5 year old DD with preschool/babysitter dropoffs -- upsurge in separation anxiety

post #1 of 6
Thread Starter 
For the last few months, DD has been having a terrible, tearful time every time she gets dropped off anywhere (summer camp, friend's house, preschool, babysitter). All of these are places she knows well -- the same preschool she went to joyfully last year, the same babysitter she adores and ASKED to go play at her house, the same-age neighbor with whom we've been doing a weekly childcare trade for several years. (Summer camp was new -- but interestingly, the tearful separations didn't start until week 2 -- she went happily at first!)

DP and I are self-employed and work from home, so she is able to be with us FAR more than most kids I know. But we do need some work time each week -- keeping her home with us is not an option.

At first we were blaming the summer camp (and I do think there were some problems there) or a specific babysitter we tried this summer, who she just didn't seem to hit it off with. Maybe those things triggered this upsurge in separation anxiety. But now it happens everywhere, every time we need to drop her off, regardless of which parent it is. She says she doesn't want to go to the given place, and cries hard when we leave. The various caretakers say it lasts 30 seconds to 3 minutes (I've hidden out of her sight where I could still hear, and can verify that time range), and then she's fine. She's happy and bubbly at pickup, not even in a rush to leave.

I feel like we're entering our 4th month of this, and I'm not seeing any change, except the feeling that now she's in a rut that "this is how we do it." She will turn 4 in 3 months. The only separations now are preschool (again, very familiar, teachers are beloved to her) and the 3 year old neighbor whose mom she adores. No more summer camp or babysitter who she says she didn't like.

We have been "practicing" preschool dropoff at home, which she loves to do (sometimes she plays the role of the mom, sometimes she plays the role of the kid). We talk about how she's sad at first but then she has fun, and she agrees that's true -- even she can predict this when we talk about it. She just doesn't like the moment of being left (even if someone is engaging her in an activity), and she clearly feels a lot of anxiety about it -- it's what she's thinking about it in bed the night before.

We've also done lots of reassurance about parents always coming back (that doesn't seem to be her worry), about the people who are there to take care of her, about the fun stuff she will do while she's there. The book The Kissing Hand, which helped her a lot last year, doesn't seem to do the trick anymore.

What else can we do to try to get through this? I wish we could pull her out of everything and keep her home for a few months, but it's just not an option. It still breaks my heart to leave a wailing, sad kid.
post #2 of 6

Two thoughts:

I think there is a developmental upsurge in separation anxiety about this age. Children are old enough to remember the separation well, and they don't like it, but they don't  yet have the forward thinking capabilities to remember they get over it quickly. They're still living very much in the moment.


Second, this sounds like true separation anxiety -- she's not unhappy being away from you (if she calms down in 3 minutes, she's fine). It's the THOUGHT of separating that's scary for her. Since your not working is not an option, you're going to have to get through it. What helped my son at this age (he had early (4 mos) and intense separation anxiety until he was 4ish), was to have a quick, but defined drop-off routine. It also really helped when I handed him over to a teacher at daycare rather than trying to get him engaged in play. He couldn't play while he was waiting for me to leave, but he could be comforted. I'm sorry, I don't remember what our drop-off routine was.


Sometimes, it also helped to talk about what his day was going to be like, and I always made sure to tell him when I'd pick him up (in terms he could understand like "after afternoon snack").


Edited by LynnS6 - 9/14/11 at 3:35pm
post #3 of 6

I'm not sure I have any advice but I wanted to commiserate.  My DD is 41 months and has always had some trouble with separation but it's gotten really tough in the past few weeks.  She's also been crying each day at preschool during nap time and saying that she was missing me.  It's true our schedule has shifted recently but NOT that dramatically.  It seems to be developmentally tied to lots of other independence issues and sleep avoidance in her case.  Is your DD also asserting her independence more than usual?  Maybe that independence they crave at this age feels a little scary to them at times as well?   Just a thought...


Also, I definitely find that it helps when DD is fully informed of the days and weeks schedule.  We rehearse and plan all the time. 


Good luck and hugs!

post #4 of 6

Hi Indigosky  I came across your post as I am currently dealing with a very similar situation with my now 3.5 year old daughter.  Prior to about 2 months ago she happily attended toddler classes on her own and stayed with different caretakers and there does not seem to be anything we can think of that triggered her change in behavior and brought about this seemingly extreme separation anxiety. We've tried some of the same tactics practicing drop offs at home and constant reassurance that Mommy always comes back and also pulled out of summer camp and just focused on the classes and caretakers she has always been familiar and comfortable with and enjoyed.  I noticed that your post was from almost a year ago and was hoping that you could share some insight as to how you've been able to help your daughter with separation anxiety over that time period and any tips you could offer would be greatly appreciated.  Thanks in advance for your help.

post #5 of 6
Thread Starter 
Hi MotheringMommy,

I'm sorry to hear you're going through this, too! I should tell you first that our DD (now a few months short of being 5) did revert to being TOTALLY fine within weeks or not too many months (I'm guessing it was 2-6 weeks) from when I posted this. So there is hope for you! smile.gif

Things have been so completely fine for so long recently that I had to think hard to try to remember what we did that seemed to help. I think there were two things:

1) The same-age friend whose house she plays at, and whose mom she adores: For a while, instead of me dropping her off and leaving her at the house, that mom and friend would come and pick her up at our house. I'd have her all ready to go, we'd sit on the front steps, and they would come get her and she'd walk home with them. (They live less than a block away.) She seemed to have a much easier time when she was leaving me, instead of me leaving her. We did that for months, until it became inconvenient for them b/c of another child's nap schedule. When we returned to me dropping her off, she was slightly resistant briefly but overcame it quickly with fun goodbye games like saying "bye!" through the mailslot.

2) At preschool, we were saved by her favorite, super-nurturing, mom-like teacher. We developed a very clear dropoff ritual where together she and I would tour the "tables" together and look at the new activities for that day, then we'd find the teacher (or the teacher would come to us if she was available), and DD would sit with the teacher (on her lap, or teacher's arm around DD) and begin an activity at a table together. It helped a lot that the teacher was super tuned into her and would give her her 100% attention, every day, during this transition time -- no exceptions. Since by this age most of the kids were fine at dropoff, I guess she felt like she could "afford" to give all her attention to 1 kid.

When DD was younger (2.5 to 3 range), the book The Kissing Hand helped her a lot with this issue. We tried pulling it out again when this came up at 3.75 and it didn't help as much. But if you've never read it together, it could be worth a try.

Good luck!
post #6 of 6

Dear indigosky - Thank you so much for replying so quickly.  It really does help to know that everything improved for your DD fairly quickly with just some patience and support.  I appreciate your response and insights it will certainly make things easier in the short term knowing that this is hopefully just a phase.  Thanks again!

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