Anxiety at drop-off, monsters under the bed, fear of sleeping alone. These top the list of fears kids commonly wrestle with in kindergarten. Kids’ fears can be frustrating, inconvenient, and baffling for parents. They’re also developmentally normal, says Dr. Veronica Raggi, a researcher and clinical psychologist who has treated children and adolescents with anxiety in private practice, school, and hospital settings including New York University and the University of Maryland, College Park. If your child balks at sleeping alone or sheds tears at kindergarten drop-off, Raggi says there are some things you can do to help your child cope with her fears in the short term and learn confidence and resilience in the process. Parenting win!
Keep calm and confident
It’s important for parents to manage their own anxiety about the transition to kindergarten, Raggi says. If your child has separation anxiety, you may feel nervous, sad, or distressed yourself. And you are likely communicating your own distress to your child. “Sometimes parents will inadvertently give off non-verbal cues whether that’s in their facial expression, their body language, maybe they hover,” says Raggi. “Even young kids are adept at picking up some of these little cues that the parent is experiencing their own anxiety and the message then becomes ‘my parent is anxious there must be something dangerous or not okay about this situation.’ The more the parent can convey calm and confidence in new or uncertain situations, the more likely the child is going to perceive that situation as safe.”
Make goodbyes short and sweet
If your child is clingy at drop-off, make your goodbye as drama-free as possible. A kiss, an “I love you,” and a “Have a good day, I’ll see you soon,” and then, it’s best to leave. You may be tempted to stay, thinking it will ease the transition, Raggi says, but that can reinforce the anxiety your child feels about being separated from you. Instead of connecting with the teacher or integrating into the classroom, they’re focused on the fact that they don’t want you to leave.
Don’t over-talk it
You may be trying to reassure your child that the new school, sitter, or after-school activity is going to be just fine. But don’t go overboard with the conversation. “Parents might talk too much about the situation, saying you’re going to be okay, there’s nothing to worry about, or maybe they talk through the plan in greater detail than the child is even requesting,” Raggi says. “This kind of alerts the child to, ‘Oh, something’s different about this situation. Mom looks a little worried. Mom’s prepping me. Maybe this is something I need to be cautious or concerned about.'” Your kindergartener’s attention span may not be long enough to sustain an extensive conversation anyway. So answer any questions he has, but keep it matter-of-fact.
Keep routines familiar and comforting
Another thing that helps with the transition to kindergarten, Raggi says, is to keep the morning routine, well, routine. “They have their preferred breakfast. They’re expected to engage in the tasks they normally would in the morning, just a very calm kind of setting, and then on the walk to school or the drive to school, chatting about enjoyable topics, whether it’s something fun you’re going to do later in the day or a favorite TV show.” When parents model that they are comfortable in the situation, she says, kids often follow suit.
Let them come up with strategies
Learning how to handle his fearful feelings will offer big advantages to your child in the long run. It’s tempting to take over when your child expresses anxiety or worry, Raggi says, but rather than telling him that everything will be ok or that he doesn’t need to worry, ask your child, what might be something you could do about it if you feel afraid? Convey belief in your child’s ability to handle the situations that are coming up.
By learning to self-soothe, she says, your child learns that he can handle his negative emotions. “If the parent is always stepping in to take ownership of the problem and provide more support than may be necessary and not allowing the child to have to kind of sit with and manage a little bit of distress, they’re really not learning the distress-tolerance skills they need to feel more independent and competent at handling their own problems as they come up.”
Take baby steps
When a child has a significant fear that is affecting her functioning or the family’s (hello, bedtime), parents have to balance warmth and validation with limit setting and boundaries so that they aren’t enabling avoidance, Raggi says. A professional can be a big help with developing a gradual series of steps to help your child build confidence in facing their anxiety. For example, you may decide that you won’t let your child sleep in bed with you, because that will reinforce her fear and her dependence on you. But if she’s struggling, you want to help her build toward the final goal of being able to sleep alone.
“Some parents who’ve been physically present for their child to fall asleep for a number of years, work on a process where they start to sit in the chair next to their child, and then move the chair closer to the door. Or, start with intervals of time when the child is rewarded for lying in bed independently for just a few minutes while the parent brushes their own teeth. And then the parent checks in. And then we fade out the check-ins over time.”
Do a post-game recap
A little bit of processing after successfully dealing with something that frightened them can help kids connect with their own power to handle their fears. Keep the discussion simple, Raggi says. Try a few questions like, “Remember earlier in the day, you were really afraid, or you told me, ‘I’m not going to have a good day.’ or ‘I can’t do it’. And you came back and it seems like you had an okay day. What do you think?” Or, “Do you think it went better than you thought it would?” This helps your child recognize that when she feels afraid, it doesn’t mean bad things are going to happen, and that she can handle it.
Some of the more negative views about using rewards talk about reward systems feeling like bribery, or squelching kids’ internal motivation. “But there really isn’t evidence to suggest that reward systems ruin a child or ruin motivation,” Raggi says. While they are contraindicated when a child’s internal motivation for something is already high, she says, when your child has to do something that is scary or hard for them, having a little external motivation can make a big difference and move things in a positive direction.
“Something simple, whether it’s stickers or points that lead to a privilege or a prize can really go a long way in helping them to consider doing those things that they might otherwise resist. And, obviously, that leads to the mastery, and feeling good about themselves, and then you fade out the reward system over time.”