Separation Anxiety

Q: I need any advice on how to approach separation problems for my 3- (almost 4) year-old son. My husband and I teach his Sunday School class every other week, but the weeks with other teachers, we have trouble dropping him off. He has asked me almost every morning for the past year if we’re going to church that day. The second question is if we’re teaching his class. Today, we were not teaching and he became upset, tried to run away at the door, and when forced to go in, tried to hit another friend. We took him out and calmed him down before trying again. He had gotten to a point where he would go in fairly willingly, but it’s gotten much worse lately. I don’t know what has changed or what to do about it.

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A: It sounds like you’re playing Parent Detective in trying to discover why your preschooler suddenly doesn’t want to be without you in some social situations. But because he’s three, he probably has no idea why he doesn’t want to be alone in a classroom without mom or dad there. What is clear is that he’s not ready to be on his own at this time.

Sometimes, when kids are growing into a new stage developmentally, they regress a bit socially, and that sounds like what’s happening with your son. And because he’s becoming more physical in demonstrating his anxiety, you’ll need to simply stop trying to make him do this.

Each week you’re not teaching, tell him that he has a choice—he can go into his classroom by himself or he can sit quietly with you in your classroom. When he says stay with you, remind him that he must be quiet (and make sure you’ve brought a coloring book or something to occupy him during your class) and take him in with you.

What you shouldn’t do is try to convince him there’s nothing to be afraid of or to force him at age 3 to go to class by himself. And don’t discuss this other than to ask him once what he wants to do each time. The more you talk about a problem at this age, the bigger it looms in the child’s mind and a molehill morphs into a mountain.

He will likely outgrow this and start to want more independence, but until he does, you’re better off not forcing the issue.

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