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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Separation Anxiety: A Normal Occurrence for Small Children

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 20th 2007

The school season has begun in many parts of the nation and this arouses separation anxiety for many young children who are entering anything from pre kindergarten to first and second grades. In some cases even older children continue to experience separation anxiety.

Because separation anxiety in small children often arouses great anxiety in the parents, as well, it is important to understand a number of things about this issue.

1. Separation anxiety is a normal and necessary part of development that indicates that things are well with the child rather than not well. During the first year of life something called object constancy is established in the mind of the child. What object constancy refers to is the fact that the baby remembers that mommy or daddy continue to exist even after one or both leave the room. This means that a real attachment between parent and child is now established which manifests itself in the baby's fear that once mommy has left the room she might not return.

2. In fact, separation anxiety in the child about to leave for pre kindergarten or first or second grade means the same thing: the fear that mommy will not be there when they return home from school.

3. If older children continue to experience fear about leaving home or being away from parents it may signify a deeper underlying anxiety disorder. However, under normal development circumstances, separation anxiety ends by about second to third grade.

4. It is not clear why some children do not experience this anxiety upon beginning school while others do. Parents are urged to remember that if their child is one of the many who do experience this difficulty that it is no one's fault and the child will out grow it.

5. Separation expresses itself in many forms including the child throwing temper tantrums, clinging to the legs of the parent, screaming and crying and other forms of behavior designed to arouse guilt and fear in the parent.

6. It is usually one parent who is singled out as the target for clinging and separation anxiety. This does not mean that one parent is better loved or needed than the other.

7. One of the worst things a parent can do is to surrender to the child's fears and allow them to remain at home.

What Can Parents Do?

There are a number of useful strategies that a parent can use to reduce the amount of stress the child may experience upon entering pre kindergarten or later:

1. Allow the child to meet the teacher before school begins. This meeting should include a chance for the child to explore the environment of the classroom.

2. Provide an opportunity to go shopping for school supplies and choose the book bag they prefer as well as other items.

3. Send the child to school with a something favorite that reminds them that mom and dad are still there and available to them at the end of the day.

3. Parents must behave in a "matter of fact way" for the child, thereby modeling calm behavior in order to set a good example for the young child.

4. Even in the face of clinging and tears it is important for parents to remain calm, reassuring, confident and resolute about the fact of going to school.

5. Long before school begins it is good for parents to give child the chance to experience small separations, perhaps by visiting Grandma for a few hours.

6. Parents must keep their promises to be home when the child returns from school or to be at the school to pick them up if that was promised. If nannies are used it is important that they are people well known to the children and 100% reliable in being there to receive the children.

7. Regularity and consistency is what builds confidence in the child that things remain normal and stable even during times of separation.

8. By the way, do not sneak away when your child is not looking believing this will avoid anxiety. I am 65 years old and I still remember my mother doing this when she took me to school and promised to remain there. This does not build trust. Fortunately, this happened only one time. I had a good mom even though I had separation anxiety.

Your comments and experiences are welcome.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

More info please - - Jul 18th 2010

Why is the worst thing a parent can do to give in to the child and let them stay home?

There is nothing to back up that fear and guilt provoking statement.

If a child naturally grows out of separation anxiety, doesn't that mean the parents' actions have little to do with it, just as teeth growing in, you can't speed it up by causing your child to cry in the corner of a room scared?

Also, I do not believe children are trying to illicit fear and guilt from a parent by crying. The child is scared of separating from mom or dad, not planning in their head the best way to manipulate mom and dad. 

Separation Anxiety starts 3 wks into PreK - Miranda - Sep 18th 2009

My pre-K child did just fine for nearly the first 3 weeks.  Last Friday something must have occured during lunch because she apparently started crying for no reason. She did have a small cough and runny nose so they sent her to the school nurse to make sure she was feeling well.  She never has handled strangers well and still won't speak or associate with my father-in-law or my grandparents.  She was taken to the doctor and found to have an upper respitory problem and given meds.  She stayed home this past monday but went to school fine on Tuesday with no problems but when it came time to go to school Wed. she did fine until the part of getting out of the car. My husband couldn't get her out. She screamed, cried and kicked so I called her in sick and she stayed home. Then yesterday she wanted me to drive her and she did fine, we walked in, she pointed to her friends but would not sit down with them or release my hand.  When her teacher walked out she tightened her grip and her teacher greated her and took her hands, then my daughter began to cry, the teacher told me just to go ahead and go. She eventually calmed down and had a good day. She was all smiles when we went to pick her up in the afternoon.  Then this morning she got ready and sang in the car on the way to school.  My husband walked her in, she even let go of his hand and sat with her friends but when the teacher walked in she began to get upset again. And my husband was instructed that she would be okay and to just go.  We did find out yesterday that there was a new volunteer in the cafeteria last friday which we think triggered the problem. What we can't figure out is what exactly happened that all of a sudden triggered the anxiety. 


4yr old son - Cher - Feb 8th 2009

What about this: 

Last year on March 28 my son was attacked by our oldest dog. He required numerous amounts of stitches to his face, and one of his fingers were severely damaged. We kept things as normal as we possible good after that, we went on our vacation to the race track, and he went to preschool as normal. His teacher was amazing with him. She made sure that the girls in his class were aware of what happened before he came back. Unfortunately he did require surgery on his finger, the dog had broke both tendons in his finger. He went for surgery on April 11, and was ready to go to school by the following Tuesday. Yes we did put the dog down, and we did not force him to go to school, he loves he teacher so much that he couldn't stand being away. He even loved the fact that she called him during that weekend to make sure he was OK. But now almost a year later its like we are facing him at 2 or 3 yrs old instead of 4. I have to bribe him to stay home with his father instead of coming with me. He no longer allows anyone else to pick him up from preschool, which earlier this year he did, now if anyone tries to pick him up, he cries and runs to his teacher and tells her that he wants me. If he is busy at basketball, I can leave and come back, but if he isn't I can't leave. He is only willing to go into the YMCA kids space if he knows his teacher is working that night. He fights other nights. He won't even go to his grandparents anymore. When we go to Church, if anyone seats next to us he freaks out. We were at one of my daughter's dance school and the secretary wanted to show him where the toys were, he ran to me crying big tears. He gets upset and refuses to go to school if his teacher will not be there. If she is sick, and he shows up at school, and the sub is there he refuses to stay. The school he attends is very small and everyone knows everyone. Last year before the accident he was fine. Now he can't even handle people talking to him, he will hide from them. If he has seen them before he will stand by me and talk to them, but hold on tightly to me. Like his teacher says he can't stay in preschool the rest of his life. Any ideas what is going on?

Fear of death - Louis Albert - Oct 10th 2008

I am the father if a very bright 6 year old (first grader) girl.  I leave for work later than my wife, so I am the one responsible for getting her ready for school in the morning.  Kindergarden was fine.  She was always a little anxious in the morning, but seemed to like going to school.  About 2 weeks before school started this year she constantly complained of ear aches and not being able to hear well.  She was prone to ear aches in the past, as many children are at that age.  We had her checked out by her doctor and he found everything to be normal.

As school started, she would flat out refuse to go.  Still complaining of her ear not feeling right.  We made her go every day.  She refused to eat breakfast and lunch because she had stomach aches and was afraid she would throw up.  We met with the school psychologist. She then met with our daughter.

After the first meeting with the school psychologist, our daughter mentioned that we used to have a dog that had a brain tumor.  My wife and I were in shock.  Our dog had to be put to sleep about a year before my daugher showed any signs of seperation anxiety.  She hadn't even shed a tear or seemed concerned at the time.  She actually asked when  could get another dog. 

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together, I realized what her fear was all about.  Our dog had ear infections quite often, which was not at all related to his brain tumor.  My daughter associated her past ear aches with the possibility of having a brain tumor.  I sat with her and she admitted her fear. 

We are still working with the psychologist and she still displays her seperation anxiety to some extent.  Every morning is a challenge. 

4 year old with severe separation anxiety - Jeff - Oct 3rd 2008

My daughter started Pre-K 3 weeks ago and after discussing with her teacher we decided that my wife would stay a week or two to ease her into it. Her anxiety seems to be much worse than the other kids and her teacher agreed

She is extremely connected to my wife who stays home so they have never really been apart.

All was going according to plan until a week into it. Due to class sizes the morning and afternoon (which my daughter attended) classes were combined into one morning class.

With the change in schedule and class size a couple things have happened.

Before my wife could go to school and leave the class not the premises for an hour at a time with no issues. Now my daughter has almost a panic attack if she tries to leave. It has also spilled into our home life, before she would go to her grandmothers a lot and out with me for the day. Now she freaks out if mom is out of her site at any time.

My instinct is to keep her in school with a full separation from my wife and see how it goes but i don't want to do severe damage to her mentally and make problems worse.

Please help

Normalization - Dawn Pugh - Aug 29th 2008


Firstly let me say I can really empathize with your situation and my heart goes out to all of you who either have suffered with seperation anxiety or are dealing with someone who is...

Personally as a child I  suffered with speration anxiety. It is quite normal although extremely heart wrenching at the time; Consistent patience, support and encouragement are the key to improvement. 

Good luck


Dawn Pugh

Seperation anxiety from starting kindergarden - JEFF SMITH - Aug 28th 2008

Hello,I have a 5 year old who just started kindergarden and his seperation anxiety seems to be getting worse.2 days from now will be two weeks for him at school.I can barely get him out of the car.He keeps saying " please daddy don't do this to me ".We've never been apart since birth and it's herting me so very much to see my little boy go through so much.Please tell me,what is the best way to handle the kicking and screaming while trying to take him into his classroom.I realy would appreciate it from the heart if someone out their could give me some tips,advice or something.

Please help me,please.....Feel free to email me at



Separation Anxiety of a 4 year old - Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, PhD - Jun 6th 2008

Dear Kate,

It appears that your 4 year old is having an extremely tough time adjusting to Pre K. Under the circustances and given the intensity of his reactions and the fact that it is on going, I would suggest that you have a consultation with a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating small children. Ask your pediatrician for a referral.

Dr. Schwartz

- Kate - Jun 6th 2008

I need to know what is normal.  I have a 4 yr old son and he just started preschool the day after memorial day.  It has been a week and a half.  He previously went to an in home daycare but will be turning four in July so I wanted to start preschool.  I have worked full time for his entire life so he has had to be in some sort of daycare.  BUT ever since full time preschool he has been a wreck.  The first day he cried and clung to me, I had to push him into the door and run out of the room.  I got there an HOUR early walked him around the room, introduced him to the teacher, the other kids, played at the centers with him.  I REALLY tried to ease him into this brand new situation.  The next day the same scenario and so on.  The teachers kept telling me this was normal, but tonight when I picked him up the teacher pulled me aside.  I asked her how the day went and with exhaustion in her eyes she said Kate I have to tell you it wasnt good.  There is a window seat with a HUGE window looking out to the parking lot that the kids can wave good bye to mom and dad and see when they arrive at night to pick them up.  Apparently my child has been sitting in that window for 10 days straight 8 hours a day crying for his mom and dad.  She told me that she has tried everything to get him to engage with the other kids and he outright REFUSES to do so.  "I cant make friends, I cant play on the playground because I will get hurt," (playing at the park is something he enjoys with us and has since he was able to walk)  "I have to sit by the window" " my mom will come get me".  This apparently goes on all day long.  With uncontrollable crying spells in between.  I am at a loss.  The second we get home and are done eating dinner it starts.  " I cant go to school tomorrow, you dont have to go to work, I dont want to make friends, I dont want to play."  He used to be a great sleeper now he gets up from bed several times repeating how much he hates school.  Today when I picked him up he had chewed his nail off to the point of a bloody mess. I need advise on what to do.  Does he have anxiety issues or is this part of the separation process?  Any thoughts?

Thank you! - Ms. Alayna - Sep 14th 2007
I have been a preschool teacher for seven years now, and have experienced many cases of seperation anxiety. The biggest thing for parents is they want to know its normal, especialy when they only see their child crying. Finding an artical that expressed how common and okay it is was hard to fined! Thank you!

Separation anxiety leading to upset stomach and frequent bathroom use in school - Melanie - Sep 5th 2007
My child had gone to preschool 2 years ago and did fine the whole year without any sort of anxiety. She then went to Pre-K and at some point during that year (she was 4 ready to turn 5), she started crying as soon as she would get up on the 2 days that she would go. She would use the bathroom frequently in school and now to this day even when I take her to her baton class and actually the parents stay there, she still has to go to the bathroom constantly. I notice the bathroom use a lot when we go places.  She just started Kindergarten last week. She did fine the first day and as the days go by, she has gotten worse. She gets upset before bedtime and is real quiet the morning of school and has bowel movements quite frequently in the morning. She goes to school every day/all day. They say she will calm down after a couple of hours.  I sometimes wonder if this is normal for her because she is not a shy child. She is really outgoing. Sometimes you have to watch her more out in public because she would go up to anyone who has a baby and starting talking to them. 

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