Separation Anxiety in a Preschooler

Separation anxiety in a preschooler is not as well documented as it perhaps should be.  It is well known to exist in babies and there is plenty of help and advice to help the child’s anxiety. But what do you do when it starts in a preschooler? What do you do when a change in routine causes the issue but that can’t change back?

Our lives have changed slightly recently.  Not vastly, or at least not to my adult brain.  To the brain of a three year old the change is obviously a lot greater.  Hubby is now traveling a lot for work.

This travel is often erratic, there is no pattern, it can be relatively last minute and although it isn’t for long, maybe a couple of days and nights, that is a long time when you are three.  To be clear I am fine with all of this, I am embracing the positives because if I didn’t that wouldn’t achieve anything.  I now get a couple of evenings to myself in a month (sometimes more).  I get to watch whatever I want, I can cook meals Hubby isn’t keen on, I get to be alone with my own thoughts once the girls are in bed.  It helps me reset.  Pinky, however, is not coping well.

Recently she has become very moody.  I understand that part of this comes with being three and a half but her outbursts have been a little different to the usual tantrum.  Ever since she was born she has been referred to as a ‘velcro baby’, a Mummys girl.  These last few weeks she has very much been a Daddy’s girl.  In the mornings she goes to him for cuddles.  She wants him to get her dressed, brush her teeth.  She wants Daddy to read her stories and to put her to bed.  All of this is lovely on the surface of it.  The fact that it is a direct reaction to him going away for work is what makes it hard.  As soon as the front door shuts behind him her whole mood changes.  She will go from happy and giggly to miserable and nasty.  The tears are free flowing over anything and everything.  This last week it has progressed fro being generally tearful to being outwardly angry.  Pinky has always had a great foot stomp but now she does it with the intent of causing pain.  She has started punching the floor, gritting her teeth and screaming in anger.  None of this is normal behaviour for her.  I was pretty satisfied with the idea that this was a phase that would pass in due time, she would soon get used to this change in our lives.  Now I’m a bit more concerned that the phase isn’t passing fast enough.

I decided I would do a little reading to make sure that I was doing everything I could to help her.  I have struggled to find anything really useful online as most websites only cover separation anxiety in relation to daycare of the younger toddler.  Pinkys preschool stage isn’t as well documented, nor is the ‘traveling parent’ scenario.  However, I think some of the advice is useful in general.

After much digging gives the following advise for separation anxiety:

  • Let your child know it’s onto feel nervous: I try and let Pinky know it is ok to miss Daddy… This seem to anger her further… I don’t know why.  Telling her that I miss him too is even worse.
  • Plan so extra one on one time: I have tried to do this but it isn’t easy.  She has a little sister, I can just take Pinky out.  We did go out for lunch the other week just the three of us and it was lovely.  It may not have been one on one time but it did remind her that I could be fun too.  We didn’t need Daddy to do nice things.
  • Develop a predictable bedtime routine: Well…. Pinky has had a predictable bedtime routine since she has been 12 weeks old! It has adapted slowly as she has gotten older but essentially it’s exactly the same.  She has still had the predictable sleep regressions and we have still had the awful soul destroying weeks that have require all of mine and Hubbys willpower not to cave in.  She is now playing up at bedtime when Hubby is away…. I think she can smell my weakness.
  • Do your best not to cave in:  I am the most stubborn person I know.  Pinky has inherited this!  It’s a stand off for days.

I found much more useful  It lists some of the signs and symptoms of separation anxiety including reluctance to go to sleep and why. Check. Cling to the care giver. Check (she wont let Daddy go).  Fear that something terrible will happen. Check.  She simply likes having Daddy around, he makes her feel safe.

This website gives much of the above advise but it also has a couple of other points:

  • Develop a good bye ritual:  We have had one of these since she was born.  Hubby always says the same things to her as he leaves to go to work, traveling or not.
  • Leave without a fanfare:  Hubby also does this very well already.  It’s the usual good bye and he’s gone.
  • Have a consistent care giver:  I am a stay at home mum.  I couldn’t be more consistent if I tried.
  • Keep familiar surroundings when possible:  Well quite simply I do.  We don’t go far when Hubby is away.  Just our usual playground and walks.
  • Try not to give in: Again… stubborn!

The one piece of advise most people agree on is don’t use the phrase “be a big girl”.  I am very guilty of this so from now on I will not be saying this!  I will hold my tongue and tell her everything is ok.  I have taken solace in the fact that I have already implemented most of the advice so hopefully this stage will pass as quickly as it came.

Are there any other techniques you would recommend? Has anyone else been through anything similar?

This post originally appeared on Meet Other Mums where I am very proud to be a regular blogger.

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  1. Oh, I feel for you. This sounds tough. My girl is a mummy’s girl too. I’m not looking forward to leaving her with her dad or my mum when I go to work next year. I hope it is a phase for your daughter and that it’s over soon. Good luck! #bigpinklink

  2. Sounds like a tough time! I’m sure you’ll make it through although it probably seems very stressful at times! Sounds like you’re doing all the right things and being consistent. Do phone calls help? Or maybe making a card for Daddy to give him when he comes back? It might help give her something productive to do and look forward to giving to her Daddy when he comes home. #bigpinklink

    1. Phone calls help sometimes but often make things worse so that can be difficult to judge. She did make him a card once and one for me to say sorry at nursery, that seemed to improve her mood that evening so that may be something I will try. I’m sure it will end soon… Or so I keep telling myself. Thank you for reading and your suggestions X

  3. I’m sure it is just a stage, we’ve had children at nursery who can’t bear to part with their parent and will cry the whole day but it slowly wears off over time, we keep them occupied to try and take their mind off being upset but it can be heartbreaking to see them like that.

    1. I’m sure it is too. I just wasn’t expecting it. She is quite familiar with a nursery setting and being left there… I guess this is just so different to her than being left at nursery. It will pass, I know it will.

  4. I have a similar situation with Daddy going away on business a lot. The difference is that he’s always done it so it’s normal for my lot and I haven’t had huge problems. I think you are doing the right things and consistency is definitely key. Hope it gets easier for you soon xx #bigpinklink

    1. Thank you. I’m sure it will. There are small signs of improvement, she starting to regulate her own feelings a little quicker, the tears don’t last as long. It has certainly been a learning curve, I didn’t realise it was going to have such an impact. Thank you for reading X

  5. I’ve also got a bit of a velcro baby and I feel for you, it’s exhausting! Mine hasn’t really got a reason to feel separation anxiety, other than the fact she now has to share me with her 6 month old brother, but she’s showing similar signs to Pinky. I’m going to check out some of the sites you’ve mentioned! The other thing I read earlier today (can’t remember where) was about acknowledging their feelings. So instead of saying “there’s nothing to worry about, we love you”, to try “we love you and I’ve noticed you’re upset…it’s ok to be upset now and again…” bla bla. It sounds like you’re doing everything right and you’re trying your best my lovely. Hope you’re doing ok. xx #bigpinklink

    1. Thats a good idea. I do sometimes do that without realising but then reading that I think I validate with one sentence and then belittle with another. She has always been a sensitive soul. We had issues when Perky hit about 9 months because she could suddenly crawl and get to me and Hubby for cuddles where before she just sat playing. Every day is a new challenge I guess! X

  6. Oh this sounds tough. I hope it is a phase. My daughter has become very clingy recently. She’s 2 in January and has for the last few weeks refused to nap or go to bed without us being in the room or rocking her to sleep. Is this seperation anxiety or sleep regression? I don’t know what to do either.. I will have a look at these links though. Hope your situation passes soon xx

  7. This sounds particularly tough, made even more complicated by her not really fitting the identified ages and stages for separation anxiety, as suggested by the literature. But it sounds Iike you’ve managed to make some positive changes, but it seems it’s going to take some time for her to adjust-but it can’t be easy for you. My smallest was never a typical Velcro baby-unlike his older brother, he slept happily in his basket, on his own, and has always been quite independent, although with a stronger preference to me than my husband. But recently, he sobs when I drop him at nursery, follows me everywhere, and wakes in the night wanting to come into our bed. I know I shouldn’t, but I find it a little stifling sometimes, as he literally won’t let anyone else do a thing for him! I haven’t started researching it yet, but I’ll have a read of your links, and see if I can get some suggestions!

    1. I hope the links help. It has been a bit of uphill struggle I won’t lie. I think I was naive enough to think she was old enough to understand it all a bit better but obviously not. Good luck with your eldest. I swear parenting would be easy if it weren’t for the kids!

  8. I’m really not sure what I would do if this was my child, I’m rediculously impatient and I’ve been so grateful that at nursery, creche and school she just goes on in happy as anything. It sounds like you’ve got some really good plans in place to help your little one and I hope she settles soon.#bigpinklink

  9. The twins are 2.5 and will start preschool in the fall- they are going to have it baaaaaaad. My other kids had some at daycare but leaving mom was always part of their life as I worked full time. The twins and I have been stuck together like glue. I am probably gonna have a bit of the s.a. as well.

  10. My husband started travelling for work when my youngest was about 2 years old, she is 13 now and he still travels extensively. She has coped with it quite well but my husband has always made a point when he returns of spending some one on one time with her and we found this really helped with his being away as she knew she would get special daddy time when he got back. It didn’t have to be anything complicated – a walk to the local coffee shop to buy a cake or a trip to feed the ducks just as long as it was just “her time” with daddy. Also as with anything, kids at that age like routine and don’t like change but I think once she gets used to it things will improve. #bloggerclubuk

  11. Interesting – our two year old has had some real difficulties with my husband being away lately. I think she is too little to clearly vocalise her anguish but is displaying it in other ways such a clinginess and night wakings calling for us. I’ll bear these tips in mind!
    Thanks for linking up to #coolmumclub

    1. I hope some of it helps. I think it is so hard for them to understand and since I am a stay at home parent I hugely underestimated the effect it was going to have on her! Good luck X

  12. Some lovely advive there. My OH travels a lot too and it definitely affects the little ones. How wouldn’t it? Great idea for a post. I need to remember to be minbful of their feelings each time. It’s easy to forget that they are missing him loads. #DreamTeam

  13. It’s not easy to leave them when they aren’t happy to be left! Luckily my kids were okay going to school. One was a bit apprehensive. I agree that a good routine & keeping things positive but also not prolonging the good bye is essential! Thanks so much for sharing with #bloggerclubuk

  14. Interesting I didn’t know about a goodbye ritual, maybe I should be doing this when I go to work? Although maybe it’s too late now? That’s really hard that she has become so moody when your husband is away, especially as I’m sure it’s already hard being a “single” parent for those couple days. Some really useful tips in here, thanks so much for sharing with #StayClassyMama!

    1. I don’t think it is ever too late to start a new ritual if it will help. I know some people ‘single parent’ for longer, military wives, single parents! I think it is all relative isn’t it? I’m not used to it and neither is she. I’m hoping it will be long forgotten soon enough X

  15. You poor thing! This can be such an emotionally exhausting time for you both! Great advice given here! I hope it all sorts itself out soon and that you can take a deep breather and your little poppet can enjoy school to the fullest! Thank you for sharing !! #globalblogging

  16. Back from #StayClassyMama I’ve been doing a goodbye ritual in the morning when I leave for work 🙂 🙂 🙂 because of this post! I say,”love you so much I hope you have an amazing day today” I hope it helps him feel a little better : ).

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