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Separation Anxiety in Preschooler

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: My four-year-old son is generally very happy. He goes to school at a YMCA co-op nursery two mornings a week (9-11:45) and likes his friends there. But, every morning he tells me he doesn't want me to work and he doesn't want to go to school. He's not very adamant about it, but he is consistent.

Tommy separates easily each time we go. I tell him I'll see him after the "goodbye circle." He gives me big bear hugs and a kiss and then goes off to play.

He's also been very clingy, more so than in years. He was in tears when my husband and I went out on the weekend (and he had the same babysitter he's had since he was born). Is this common at this age? Is there anything you can suggest to help him look forward to school? Next year the program is five mornings a week.

A: I think Tommy sounds like a well-adjusted, happy three-year-old. I would focus on his contentment while at school and your satisfaction with the program. I understand that it's tough to hear his not wanting you to go to work and his not wanting to go to school every morning. Although it's a consistent routine, he's clearly not traumatized by this routine; in fact, he really likes what happens on both these mornings. So I'd treat his before school statements with some standard replies of your own like, "I understand that you don't like me to go to work and you don't want to go to school but now it's time for mommy to take you to see all your friends at school. I wonder what you'll have fun doing today. I can't wait to hear about it later. Will you promise to tell me all about it?" As to his going next year for 5 mornings, he'll be a different child next year with all that emotional and social growth behind him, including a great present experience for him to use as a reference point.

I think he does look forward to school. As to his clinging, this is perfectly age-appropriate. I would suggest asking Tommy what special things he might like to do all alone with mommy or daddy alone or together. Give him the power to dictate some time alone doing something with him that he would like to do; do this on a regular basis. He hasn't exactly been able to call many shots lately about where he or you go or what he does; this affords him these opportunities. Enjoy your little guy, he's having a great life!

More on: Expert Advice

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.


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