Dear Mr. Dad: My 3-year old has been going to the same daycare for 8 months, but he’s still anxious and nervous every time I drop him off. I know that young children can have anxiety problems about unfamiliar places and people, but hasn’t this gone on long enough?
A: I remember dropping off my oldest daughter (now 22) on her first day at daycare, and how hard it was to say goodbye and leave her in the care of people who couldn’t possibly love her as much as I did. And I still remember how she cried and didn’t want to let me go. She got over it within a few days (although it took me a lot longer), and most kids will do the same. But unfortunately, when it comes to separation anxiety, there’s no way to tell you what’s normal and what’s not.
What’s going on from your child’s perspective is that he knows you’re about to leave and he’s worried that he’ll never see you again. Some kids take longer than others, but eventually they all learn that you’ll be back. In some extreme cases, separation anxiety can last through the toddler years and all the way up to kindergarten or elementary school.
On average, kids ages 18 months to 2.5 years are the most susceptible to separation anxiety, and your 3-year old isn’t that far out of the range. So the fact that he’s still having trouble adjusting doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a problem. Again, some children simply adjust more slowly than others.
But in some cases, the separation itself isn’t the problem, and the anxiety may be a symptom of something deeper. Any kind of traumatic experience could have a profound effect on your child and his ability to adjust to daycare (keep in mind that while these experiences may not seem terribly traumatic to you, they could be a really big deal to your child). For example, a major change at home could cause general feelings of anxiousness and worry about losing you. Are you and your spouse arguing a lot? Did your son just become a big brother? Even changing daycares (which isn’t your situation) or leaving your child in daycare for longer periods than he’s used to (which could be) can reignite separation anxiety.
One of the biggest anxiety triggers is moving to a new home—even if it happened months ago. You may be over it, but your child may not have fully adjusted yet and could still be processing things. The same can apply to major remodeling projects. Keep in mind that moving can have serious effects on all aspects of a child’s development. For example, children who were already potty-trained or gave up a favorite stuffie can revert back to needing diapers and Teddy after a big move.
It’s also possible that your son knows exactly what effect his behavior has on you and he’s ramping up his anxiety because he gets extra attention from you. If you react to his crying or clinginess by staying longer, or by caving in some other way, he’ll keep using that tactic. Without realizing it, you may be teaching him that clingy behavior and tears get rewarded. See, I cry and scream and daddy or mommy stays with me!
The most important thing you can do is remain calm. Don’t lose your temper or get too impatient, but don’t give in to his demands, either. And try to create a drop-off routine and stick to it. Kids love and crave routines and find them very reassuring.