Question: We have three children and our middle child, who has just turned five, is having some problems.
She gets upset when we try to leave her with anyone else and refuses to go and play if we are anywhere except our own house. She also has trouble going to bed and will try to get one of us to stay with her until she falls asleep.
At this point we are dreading kindergarten in the fall. We have tried rewards and we have tried just leaving her to tough it out. Neither has helped. We are looking for new ideas.
Answer: It sounds like your daughter is experiencing anxiety when she is in situations that require her to be apart from you.
This is a frustrating, and fairly common, challenge for parents of young children. The things you have already tried work for some behaviours, but on their own they will not work for anxiety.
When we are anxious about something there are changes in our body and in our thinking. Due to the presence of stress hormones in our bloodstream we experience rapid heartbeat, tense muscles, and rapid, shallow breathing.
We feel afraid and our thinking focuses on the fear. When your daughter faces being apart from you these things happen to her.
Helping a child with anxiety is best approached by addressing what is happening in both their body and their mind. When possible it is also helpful to try to reduce the sense of danger ahead of time by preparing the child for a situation in which she could be anxious.
Here are some ideas that can be effective with young children who become anxious when separated from their parents:
• Provide the child with something that will help them feel close to you when you are not there. This could be something that belongs to you or something that reminds the child of you.
• Make a recording of yourself singing or reading a story and allow your child to play it when going to bed or when required to be apart from you in the daytime.
• Make a plan with your child for something you will do together when you return from being away. Suggest that she do something while you are gone to get ready for this.
• Develop a routine with your child that helps them learn to relax their body. There are children’s books that can help with this.
• Practice being apart by setting times at home when you are in different areas of the house. Make a game of it and celebrate when she is successful.
I hope that trying some different approaches helps your daughter feel less anxious when apart from you. Sometimes this problem is persistent in spite of everything you try. There are professionals in the community who can help and seeking a referral from your family doctor is a good place to start.
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