Preschooler cries little heart out when Mom leaves

My twins just started preschool two weeks ago, and their reactions are so different that I’m totally baffled! My daughter practically forbids me from coming into the classroom with her (is this a preview of her teenage years?), while my son hangs on to me anywhere he can grab something and not let go: my sleeve, my purse — one day he even put his arms around my leg and wouldn’t let go. He cries, “Mommy, don’t go!” (in a puddle of tears) and it’s all I can do to not bawl myself. The teachers assure me that minutes after I do leave, he is fine and joins the others in playing and circle time. What do I do?

— Teary-eyed mom in East Bay

Dear Teary-eyed mom: Difficult separation at preschool is as common as the common cold — and about as harmful, for the most part. You are in good company with numerous other parents whose kids just started preschool or kindergarten. The fact that you have twins makes things easier (I am sure there were sleepless nights when it didn’t feel that way) because you have a built-in “control.” The fact that your daughter separates and goes into the classroom so easily is a good indication (though not 100 percent proof) that everything going on at the preschool is just fine.

You didn’t say if your twins are in the same classroom. If so, you may be able to get your daughter to help your son with the transition to class. If not, being in separate classes is probably a big part of the challenge for your son. He has to separate not just from you, but from his twin sister as well.

That said, here are some suggestions for easing separation at preschools for all kids.

Accept that crying is sometimes part of the process. Your goal is not to eliminate it in one stroke but to help your son overcome it so he feels he’s accomplishing something important on his own.

Give your son something special that soothes him to take to class with him. It can be a small stuffed animal, a family photo, a special car, etc., that stays in his backpack. If he needs it closer by, put it in a fanny pack that he wears all day (at least initially).

Break the separation process into five simple steps and go through them fairly quickly:

• Come in and greet the teachers.

• Put backpack in cubby.

• Pick a story to read or activity to do right after you leave.

• Have him walk you to the door and push you out saying, “Bye-bye, Mommy!” Shaking a maraca or gragger at the same time helps, too.

• Then he’s to sit with a teacher for comforting. If needed, have your son dictate to the teacher a letter to you about how he was sad when you left.

It helps to “rehearse” those steps at home once or twice soon after you get back from preschool. Don’t revisit these close to bedtime when, in any case, you might hear some anxiety about going to school the next day. If you do, be reassuring and say, “Mommy will help you.” Don’t dwell on it.

Leave a note in your son’s lunch box with words of encouragement and a photo of you or your family.

Tell your son exactly when you’ll pick him up and the sequences of activities until that point. If your son is having a very hard time, it’s a good idea to come after a shorter time and only two or three activities. Say, “You’ll have circle time, outside play and snack, and Mommy will come back right after snack time.”

If possible, get your son to pick in advance which teacher he wants to go to for comforting. This requires coordination with the preschool — as does the whole enterprise.

Work with the teachers to make sure they help your son verbalize feelings of sadness and together come up with something to do to feel better. They should not just distract him and gloss over the sadness.

Ask the teachers to text or email you about 45 minutes after you’ve left to tell you how your son is doing.

Remember that when you pick up your son you are there for him. Figure out how to get your update from the teacher so it doesn’t interfere with reconnecting with your son.

It can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month or longer for your son to feel fully comfortable separating from you. During that period, try to go easy on other separation situations (baby-sitters, staying with Grandma, etc.). Remember, this is a very valuable learning opportunity. Separation will keep coming throughout life.

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant. Her website is Send questions to [email protected]