Separation anxiety at 4.5 yrs, what to do?? - Mothering Forums

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#1 of 6 Old 03-22-2012, 02:05 PM - Thread Starter
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I am at a loss here, and don't know what to do. Our son, 4 1/2 yrs old, has ALWAYS had a hard time with being left. He's been at home with me and for the past year, his baby sister, every day. We go out and about daily, and he has a few friends and cousins he plays with periodically, but mostly he is around adults, and greatly prefers their company. One day a week, since he was a baby, we've been going to ECFE (early childhood family education) where parents play with their kids for an hour, then go to the room next door for an hour of "parent group", and the kids stay behind to play with each other and the early childhood teachers. Over the years, his anxiety over the separation during "parent group" time has waxed and waned, but mostly he's been O.K. with it for the past year and a half.


Several months ago, a waldorf-inspired preschool program started up in our community. It is wonderful, as you can imagine, and expensive, but we felt that the one-day a week, three hour program was worth the money. DS started out very anxious, and I'd have to stay for half of the class before leaving him, and after a while he was able to say goodbye to me at the door. Then we had several months of illness and other things that prevented us from coming consistently. When we finally went back, I got a call after an hour that DS was inconsolable and I had to come pick him up. When I arrived, I learned that he had been hit in the face by one of the kids. He seemed truly traumatized by this, and swore from that moment on that he was NEVER going back to school. NEVER.


My partner and I discussed the problem at length, and decided that we must do whatever was necessary to get him "back on the horse", so I ended up staying the following week for a full three hours, the first hour of which he spent hiding behind me. When it was over, he said he did have fun, but was still adamant that he wasn't going back by himself. The following week, his Grandma wound up in the ICU, and so we missed school. We've also missed ECFE two weeks for this reason.


This week, my partner and I decided that it was not worth the money to send DS to something that he dreaded and, according to him, "hates". We are going to spend the money on something he's been begging for instead, which is violin lessons (Suzuki lessons, where I go with).


However, we've decided to continue with ECFE, and today was ECFE day. When he learned last night that today was ECFE day, he started protesting. "I HATE ECFE. I'm NOT going. I'm going to sit on the couch and not get in the car. The teachers are mean." (They're not mean, BTW) "I don't have any fun there" etc. Well, against my better judgement, I resorted to bribery, because I believe it's important that he goes to SOMETHING, and he's been going there for years. There are no surprises there. I told him that if he goes without complaint, that I would take him to the arcade afterwards. He begrudgingly agreed, but continued to protest that he "hates" when I go to the other room for parent group, and begged me to stay with him. When we arrived, he wouldn't come in the classroom, but stayed in the hall, hiding behind the door. One of his teachers eventually coaxed him in, and he begrudgingly played with playdoh and paint for awhile, but refused to smile or lighten up at all. When the teacher flashed the lights, indicating that it was transition time, his eyes welled up with tears and he started begging me not to leave him. They were having his favorite snack, and were even planning to go outside to play, but none of this was going to make him feel better. Finally, he said, "Mommy, I don't want to go to the arcade. please let's go!" I was STUNNED. He would rather skip his FAVORITE activity than to be left. I said, O.K. let's go then. And we drove the 30 minutes back to the house.



Did I do the right thing?? He told me that he will not ever go back to ECFE now. I've asked him to explain to me what it is that he doesn't like, but I can say with certainty that he Just. Doesn't. Want. To. Be. Left. My partner is beginning to think we are letting him manipulate us, and thinks we need to resort to consequences for not cooperating, like a loss of privileges. My mother thinks we need to just let him deal with it. Leave him in tears no matter what, so he can see that the world doesn't come to an end when I leave.


Please help. I can't stand the thought of abandoning him in stress and anxiety, all for the sake of developing independence. On the other hand, WHEN and how to I help him conquer this fear?

SAHM to my beautiful, joyful, silent D (9/90) and exuberant, charismatic, not-so-silent S (11/07) and our precious little chickpea DD born 3/11 ,+7 animals. Partner to my lovely "M.O". Trying to live with intention.

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#2 of 6 Old 03-22-2012, 02:47 PM
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I think you did the right thing. He is still young. Although lots of kids will separate easily at this age, some will not. I would let it go and try again in three or four months. It sounds like it is too distressing to him right now. A few months might make all the difference.
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#3 of 6 Old 03-22-2012, 03:35 PM
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I've heard from a lot of people a scheduled routine separation that happens often is actually easier.  I have friends who kids do better with 5 day a week preschool instead of 3 (which makes me worried since DD1 starts 2day a week in the fall).  Both my kids leave me easier at the gym daycare when we go at least 3 times a week.  If we only go once, the next time is kind of rough.  Is there a way to do ECFE more than you are?  It sounds rough for him, but I know without some type of break I would be a much worse mother.  I can always tell when it's starting to get close to a night out b/c I'm a lot snappier with the kids.

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#4 of 6 Old 03-22-2012, 04:41 PM
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I think you did the right thing by leaving. My 3yo has had severe separation anxiety since birth. I don't see the point in leaving him somewhere where he'll feel excessively anxious & traumatized (unless necessary, i.e. if you work or desperately need a break or whatever!) Instead, I've been trying to help him build strong, trusting relationships with a few people in our lives... mostly friends that we consider 'family'... so that he can build up a bit of trust & independence (well, separation from me) in a way that feels comfortable to him. I am planning on homeschooling so I'm not particularly worried about him being ready for anything -- if you are going to be sending him to school soon, then you might need to work on this issue sooner rather than later! If not, just give him time... and situations where he can practice being away from you in a way that feels good to him. Maybe that is a playdate at his best friend's house without you present, or going out to dinner with a favorite aunt/uncle, or having another trusted adult stay with him for the preschool program. My best friend's DH stayed with DS for a kid's program we went to & it was so good for him to see he could be away from me & still have fun in a group setting. He felt independent & grown up, even though he was technically still with someone. I see it as a step toward him eventually going on his own. Also, have you tried being in the room but hanging way back? And then maybe being just outside the room, looking through the window? Gradually moving further each time...

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#5 of 6 Old 03-22-2012, 05:48 PM
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If he is going to school in the Fall (you don't say) I would find something for him to attend prior and get him use to it.


Starting something new and with you, where you eventually leave him is what I would look for, not going back to the program you were in. 


I can't imagine what trauma if he goes from nothing to a full day school program.


Are you looking at K? full or 1/2 day?


I don't think bribes are good but needing to go and with you in the beginning and work up to leaving him at some point is a way to help prepare for the K if you are doing it-IMO

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#6 of 6 Old 03-22-2012, 08:40 PM - Thread Starter
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Thanks for the input. He won't be old enough for Kindergarten this coming Fall, so we have a bit of time yet. I like the idea of waiting a few months and trying again.  I do think he would do better with a program that was more than one day a week, but I can't afford it.

SAHM to my beautiful, joyful, silent D (9/90) and exuberant, charismatic, not-so-silent S (11/07) and our precious little chickpea DD born 3/11 ,+7 animals. Partner to my lovely "M.O". Trying to live with intention.

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