Debbie Granick is a parent/childbirth educator and freelance writer. She received a Masters in Social Work and a Masters in Public Health, specializing in Maternal and Child Health, from the University of North Carolina. Her previous work includes counseling adolescents and their families in a substance abuse prevention program, teaching tobacco education and reproductive health in a school setting, and consulting with local child care staff on toddler discipline strategies.

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Separation Anxiety

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Dear Debbie,

My six year old cries when it’s time to go to a birthday party, weekly dance class, anywhere not in her daily routine. She is a little shy. But she loves everything once she gets there. What is going on and how do we get out the door without these meltdowns?

-Too many tears

Call it transition anxiety. Social anxiety. Shyness. Whatever “trend of the week” name you want to put on it. Your daughter is worried and she doesn’t know how to express it. Imagine you’re a bit shy yourself. You’re thinking “am I going to know anyone there?” “Will I do a good job?” “Is anyone going to laugh at me?” “Will I know where the bathroom is or will I have to ask a stranger?”

She’s thinking about this stuff, too. But she’s six. She’s unable to make sense of these thoughts herself, much less communicate them calmly to you. I’d love to hear my own daughter (also 6) say, “Gee, mom. I know I’ll have a great time there. But I’m feeling a little insecure about the surroundings. Can you help me through it?” No…instead I get something like “I hate birthday parties. They’re dumb.”

Recognize that she’s venting anxiety, not looking for a solution. Responding with “fine. Don’t go to the party,” (tempting as it is) terminates a learning process and leaves everyone feeling bad. Try the following instead:

Use empathetic listening. Try, “I know. Sometimes I don’t want to go to parties either. But I have a good time when I get there. It sure can be hard when you first walk in, can’t it! I could walk in with you if you like.” The child may calm down when she knows you understand.

Give her an out. “I know it’s hard to go to ballet class. I’ll stay there for the first part so you can check in with me if you want.” For many kids, that security is all they need to head off happily.

Prepare. For some kids, picking out an outfit, getting a present, and writing a card right before a party is too stressful. Especially when she’s already worried about the party itself. Get ready ahead of time. Select and wrap a gift a few days early. Write the card the day before. And lay out the perfect outfit before going to bed.

Integrate stressful situations into play. Tell her to make up a puppet show about a birthday party. Create a song about dancing school. She can work through her worries in a comfortable environment.

Because you said she “loves everything once she gets there” I’m not too worried about a more serious problem with separation anxiety. Below are signs of a problem with separation anxiety that would merit a call to the pediatrician for evaluation:

• Consistent and extreme worry and fear when separating from a parent or caregiver

• Persistent worry and fear that something bad may happen

• Refusal to attend school

• Reluctance to participate in ordinary outings or activities

• Difficulty sleeping alone

• Frequent physical complaints at times of separating

Normal separation anxiety decreases significantly after age six. Hold on a little longer!


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