This post is about how reading picture books can help reduce separation anxiety in preschoolers. For book suggestions, check out our separation anxiety reading list.
We stood in the preschool drop-off line, awaiting our turn.
My daughter chatted happily with her friends, showing off her new Elsa lunch kit she had gotten for Christmas.
When it was our turn, she plopped her snack and water bottle on the cart and flung herself into my arms for a hug.
“Ok, it’s time to go inside now. I love you and will see you at pick up. Have a great day!” I said cheerfully, giving her a tight squeeze.
“I love you mommy, bye!” she shrieked, running inside.
Although drop-offs feel like a dream now, things weren’t always that way.
Separation anxiety is a common and normal part of early childhood development, but that doesn’t make it easy to manage as a parent.
Nobody wants to hear their baby start wailing when they walk across the room or leave their protesting child at daycare.
Having the right tools, like picture books, can help you manage separation anxiety effectively so you will all feel less stress about being apart!
WHAT IS SEPARATION ANXIETY?
Separation anxiety is when your child cries and protests you leaving them.
Triggers vary widely, but common ones include daycare drop-off, a primary caregiver leaving the room, or bedtime.
Severity also depends on a child’s personality and what’s going on in their little world.
The good news? This is a common and normal part of childhood development and most children will grow out of it by age 3!
WHEN DOES SEPARATION ANXIETY START?
Most children will begin experiencing separation anxiety between 4-5 months of age, with peaks around 8 and 18 months.
This is because around 4 months babies develop the skill of “object permanence” meaning they now know things exist even when they can’t see then.
This is a gamechanger for babies! They suddenly understand that mom and dad are still there and have gone away – and they want to go too.
HOW LONG DOES SEPARATION ANXIETY LAST?
Although it’s very dependent on the individual child, most kids will have occurrences of separation anxiety from between 4 months – 2.5 years old.
Don’t worry, it won’t last that whole time!
As their little worlds expand, new experiences (daycare, new sibling, parent absence) can have an impact on how anxious they may feel.
Children with a more sensitive personality may struggle with separation anxiety longer than those who don’t.
Illness or change in routine can also trigger bouts of separation anxiety. When a child is sick or overtired, there are less able to regulate their bodies and may find being left by their parents more distressing than usual.
IS SEPARATION ANXIETY NORMAL?
Yes!! Almost every child will experience separation anxiety at some point, although age and degree may vary.
My daughter has a much more independent personality, and we didn’t experience this with her much until she was past the typical age.
Each child is unique in how strongly and how often they feel separation anxiety.
Some children will develop a more severe form of separation anxiety called separation anxiety disorder. If your child is older than 2.5 and has frequent bouts of panic, takes a long time to recover from incidents, or obsesses about something bad happening to you when you are apart, they may need additional support.
Always speak with your pediatrician if you have concerns about your child’s behavior!
SEPARATION ANXIETY IN PRESCHOOLERS
Some children will experience separation anxiety throughout preschool.
In most cases, that’s normal too!
Often times there is a more specific trigger (starting school, new sibling, moving) rather than a general fear when a caregiver leaves.
In our case, separation anxiety was something I thought we had left in our past until I got pregnant with my son.
I suffered from Hyperemesis Gravidarum with both my pregnancies, but the first time around I didn’t have another child to care for do I wasn’t prepared for the impact it would have on my daughter.
Only a few weeks into my pregnancy, I went from being my daughter’s primary playmate to spending 18 hours a day in bed…and this lasted for literal months.
The stress that this caused her combined with potty training, moving, and starting school all within a few months caused a massive change in behavior.
She went from being agreeable and independent to tearful and clingy seemingly overnight.
School drop-off was a struggle and at home she wanted to constantly be by our sides.
Bedtime in particular was also TOUGH and our once-simple routine seemed to stretch on for hours.
Not all children will experience so many life changes all at once like she did, but it’s very common between the ages of 3-5 for kids to go through major transitions.
Any one of these changes can reignite separation anxiety or intensify the feelings that were already there, which can have a ripple effect on school, bedtime, and daily life.
If you are experiencing something similar, have no fear. We were able to find success by reading picture books about separation anxiety and so can you!
HOW PICTURE BOOKS HELPED WITH MY DAUGHTER’S SEPARATION ANXIETY
By the age of 3 children understand that they are a person separate from others and can begin connecting with picture book characters.
This is the perfect age to start reading books related to life experiences!
By reading books about separation anxiety with your child, you allow them to explore those complex feelings through the experience of the book character which builds their emotional intelligence.
Reading was already a large part of our daily routine, but I went on a mission to find books that would help my daughter work through all the things she was experiencing.
I’m happy to say that with the addition of these amazing books and some extra love and affection, her separation anxiety all but disappeared again!
It can sometimes be hard as a parent to find the right words to help your child; reading books together about separation anxiety will also provide you a blueprint for discussing these feeling with your child.
HOW TO GET STARTED
- Choose a few of these stories from our carefully curated list of separation anxiety picture books.
- Invite your child to read with you. You don’t need to specifically address why you chose that book; just start reading.
- Ask open-ended questions throughout about how the character is feeling, what they are doing, what your child thinks will happen next, etc.
- Relate what you are reading to what they are going through. Make factual statements, such as, “Daniel Tiger was nervous about being away from his dad at school. But his dad came at the end of the day, just like he promised. And so will we.” (There’s a great separation anxiety story in the Daniel Tiger 5-minute storybook that we read often!).
OTHER WAYS TO HELP YOUR PRESCHOOLER WITH SEPARATION ANXIETY
What our kids need most for us during times of fear is love, support, and boundaries.
Recognizing and normalizing your child’s fears will go a long way to helping them build coping skills.
- Acknowledge their feelings using positive phrases such as, “it’s ok to be nervous about starting school,” or “I know sometimes it can be scary to be away from mom and dad.”
- Avoid negative statements such as, “you don’t need to be scared,” and “this isn’t a big deal.”. To them it is a big deal and something to be scared about. Minimizing their fears will only create more tension and embarrassment.
- Normalize their fears by sharing a time when you felt nervous about being away from your safe space. Sharing personal experiences promotes empathy.
- Prepare for upcoming situations by talking about it ahead of time. Ask your child how they are feeling and talk about ways to cope during the separation.
WHEN IN DOUBT, PICK UP A BOOK
There’s no way to 100% remove separation anxiety from your child’s life, and honestly, you wouldn’t want to.
It’s a normal part of development and demonstrates their love and attachment for their caregivers.
You can, however, prepare your preschooler for situations where they may feel separation anxiety.
We noticed such a marked improvement in my daughter’s confidence once we read a few books on separation anxiety! It has made a world of difference for our family and is such an easy way to support your kiddo.
As a graduate of the Family Science field, I am a strong advocate of prevention over reaction whenever possible, especially when it comes to raising kids.
Reading has many well-documented educational benefits, but it also improves emotional well-being.
Through books, you can introduce the complex feelings of separation anxiety to your child in a way that is organic and in a format they can easily connect with and understand.
Learning to recognize what they are feeling is a huge part in building the stress-response skills they will use the rest of their life!
Does you have a 3-5 year old who struggles with separation anxiety? What are some of the ways you help them cope? Share them in the comments so we can all get some new ideas!