Separation Anxiety in Three-year-olds

I’m a stay-at-home mum to a three-year-old girl. She has just this last week started attending a preschool setting. She only goes for three hours a day, twice a week. The first day she was there, it was ok. The second day, she needed longer cuddles. Today, it was an hour before I was able to leave.

I’ve been scouring the internet for how to deal with this. The best advice is “develop a routine – hug, kiss, goodbye, then walk away”. I’m sorry, but that sounds harsh, even to me. Of course the child’s going to still be upset. I think I’d be too.

All my closest friends know I’ve been struggling with this. Trying to figure out the right course of action. Just now, my eldest sister send me a message on Whatsapp, and the penny dropped. And I’m quite literally (well, almost) sitting here happily bashing my head against a brick wall over my stupidity. Now, mind, I’m not saying that all parents/carers are stupid…. but…. perhaps we need to look at this issue in a different way.

What my sister said, roughly, was this: Have you looked at this from your daughter’s perspective? You’re her primary carer. You are the person who she goes to for EVERYTHING, and she’s been doing this for over three years now. (Yes. That’s true. I get frustrated some days when she comes to ME to ask for water instead of asking Daddy….) So now. You are taking her to a strange place, with strange people, and you’re leaving her there. So what questions might be going through her mind? Let’s look at some examples:

  • Who will change my nappy if it gets full or I do a poo?
  • Where can I find water to drink?
  • Who’s going to give me a snack?
  • What if I hurt myself? Who can I go to for cuddles and a kiss (if required)?
  • What if I get cold? Who can I ask for a jacket?

I know I’ve done it, and I’m sure countless others too… I think we completely forget that our little ones need to LEARN how things work outside of the home, how things work when Mommy (or Daddy or other carer) is not around. And how on earth are they LEARN unless we TELL them!?

We need to TELL our children who are scared of leaving us that “[this particular person] will help you if you need *fill in the blank*”. We need to do a proper handover of the carer position so that they know who they can go to. Not just assume that they will attend nursery/preschool/kindergarten and be happy.

I’m not saying this is THE solution to separation anxiety, don’t get me wrong. But I DO think that this is probably a HUGE part of where our children are having issues, and it is such an easy fix it’s ludicrous. I can even recall doing a similar handover previously, at least a year ago, just chatting to my daughter in the car. And if I recall, I was effectively dismissed on arrival, without so much as a hug, let alone a goodbye!!!

I have yet to speak to my daughter. She’s in bed for the night. But tomorrow I plan to have a chat with her. I will apologise to her that I don’t think I’ve understood what she’s been scared about. Then I’ll ask  her if this is what her worries have included. And next time I take her to preschool, I will do a proper handover. I’m betting it’ll go a long way to solving the problem.


About Laurel C Kriegler

A born and bred South African, I was educated at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, where I graduated with an Honours Degree (post-graduate) in Economics at the end of 2001. After spending several years gaining work experience in the UK, I returned to South Africa to get married. It was during the ensuing period that my pursuits of writing and editing took hold.
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4 Responses to Separation Anxiety in Three-year-olds

  1. I taught preschool for 20 years. The ritual kiss good bye or maybe a special wave from a window works well. It is not heartless because you know you are not leaving your child in a bad place, but a place where she will grow and gain skills and friends, she is growing up. Change might seem scary but nothing actually bad is happening. When the parent stays and stays it tells the child that yes, there is something wrong with mom leaving me at preschool. There really is something wrong with this place. Other kids can be left, but not me, I can’t handle it –which is a confidence killer. If you talk about it at other times beside the emotional leave taking, that helps, too. You can encourage a little independence, talk about the first thing she will do at preschool things she looks forward to..


    • Hi! I do totally get that the quick hug/kiss/goodbye is a good routine to set up. But I just didn’t see how I could do it. But being able to explain a bit more to her – which I did this morning – I think pays dividends too. I did apologise that I hadn’t said a word. And she actually did say that one of the reasons she’d missed me WAS a nappy change. But then she was able to tell me other stuff – which showed me she’d seen what I was talking about in action (carers taking on role of mother), which means she can then apply it to herself too. This won’t be our only discussion on the matter, I’m pretty sure. And yes. We’ll work out a goodbye routine. And of course, the reassurances that Mommy will come back.


  2. Jaleta Clegg says:

    Some children have a much harder time than others. A lot depends on their personality. I do think you’re right about explaining to them what’s going on. Children aren’t stupid. They can understand more than we give them credit for. Setting up a routine helps because then they know what to expect. Explaining it to them ahead of time also helps.

    I have eight children. Each one was different. Three was much too young for preschool for some of them, but most of them were fine with it.

    Good luck with your daughter! Enjoy the hugs and cuddles while she’s still willing to give them.


    • Hi! Thanks for your insights. I do know she’s actually totally fine while I’m gone. We just need to make a few adjustments to ease her into the setting a little more comfortably. She herself suggested going to the playground there… which may be a first destination for a while till she’s more settled. Time will tell!


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