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Ask Miss Patti: Tips for dealing with preschool tears

How to handle the big emotions that come with preschool life
There is a lot of growth that takes place in a child’s brain and sometimes this growth spurt can trigger behaviours we haven’t seen since they were little

Dear Miss Patti,

When I first brought my child to preschool, they went without a tear and barely said goodbye. Now we have been attending for months and suddenly they have started crying at drop off. What is happening?

—Sincerely Suddenly Sad

Dear Suddenly Sad,

We see this a lot in preschool! This especially happens as a child is about to turn 5. There is a lot of growth that takes place in a child’s brain and sometimes this growth spurt can trigger behaviours we haven’t seen since they were little. This is normal and we just have to give these big emotions validation, patience, and space. This is not the time to tell them, “You are a big kid now, no more tears,” nor, “Crying is for babies.” Sometimes we just need a good cry, no matter the age. We don’t want to ever make them feel shame about their emotions. All emotions are needed to grow.

Sometimes it’s as simple as older family members talking about death, or watching a lovely Disney movie that has a parent pass away in it. Suddenly your child does not see you as immortal and this might scare them. They might not want to leave your side for fear you will not return or that something might happen to you. These are big topics that they might not understand enough to share with you. For me, it was a cousin who told me that my mom will not live forever. What!? Suddenly I didn’t want to leave my mom’s side. We can’t be with our child all the time and we don’t always know what they have overheard, have been told or what they have watched on TV. Again, validate their feelings and remind them you always come back to pick them up. Give them something of yours (please, not something valuable) that they can carry with them to feel close to you even when you’re not there.

This is the time too when we start talking about Kindergarten and we might go to Get Ready for Kindergarten events. This is a big change for children, and it might scare them. “If I act a little maybe I don’t need to go... Maybe if I start having accidents I don’t have to go.” My son told me he was not going to ever turn 5 so that he wouldn’t have to go. Maybe dial back all the Kindergarten talk for a bit to see if that helps.

This is also a time when we might be adding to our family and a new baby comes into the house. We feel this is a great time for them to go to preschool so that they get some time for them as well as you get some time with baby. But some children might interpret this as, “The new baby gets to stay home with mom/dad and I get kicked out!” Again, validate these feelings and make sure to find some quality time with your older child as well.

Finally, I always say the magic number is two weeks. Share the concerns and changes in behaviour with the educators and hang in there for two weeks. Don’t give up yet and give in. If you let these big feelings steer the decisions it will only get harder. Now they know that tears will let us go home. Remember, these small transitions get us ready for bigger transitions. It’s easier to work this out now with educators who are very used to separation tears and more than willing to work with you. (So are Kindergarten teachers, but remember their ratio might be one teacher to 20 children, whereas preschool is one educator to 10 children). If after persisting for two weeks and it’s still a nightmare drop off, then maybe your child really isn’t ready yet. Give it a few months and try again. Sometimes that little break and a bit of growth makes all the difference.

Here's an article with more information, Managing Preschool Separation Anxiety.

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