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Son is anxious over another child's crying at school separation

A new child just started my child's preschool. This child has separation anxiety and cries hysterically when his father drops him off. My child has developed anxiety now about going to preschool and clearly does not like this new child's behavior. My child becomes upset when just seeing this child and has begun to state he no longer wants to go to school. What should I do to help my child cope with this new child and his behavior?

I almost wish the new child had not started at my sons preschool. It has interrupted his once 'happy' routine and attitude towards preschool.
Laurie

Dear Laurie,
What a painful situation for everyone involved! What your little guy is feeling is empathy, so he is getting upset when he sees this new child’s distress. That’s the good news. The bad news, however, it that he is too young to tolerate the distress and doesn’t know how to handle it, so he is getting upset at the other child. This is not uncommon; some toddlers even hit other children when they cry because they can’t tolerate their own anxiety over seeing someone in pain.

My advice would be to immediately discuss the situation with the teacher, explaining that your son is so upset by this that he doesn’t even want to go to school. I am sure your child is not the only one who is upset by the new child’s hysterical crying. In most preschools, the teacher can figure out a way for the child having the separation distress to be comforted in another room so as not to disrupt the class.

My second recommendation is to start giving your son language for all these feelings, acknowledging that of course the other child’s distress is painful to him. “That boy is so upset. It makes you upset to hear him cry. It is hard to hear him cry like that. It worries you.”

Third, see if there is anything positive he can do to comfort the other child, maybe not while he is hysterical, but after. “Would you like to draw a picture to cheer him up? The teacher can help you give it to him later.” Whether or not his “offering’ has a positive effect on the other boy, at least it will help your son feel less powerless, and orient him toward comforting, rather than becoming angry at, someone else whose pain disturbs him. It may also be that he will draw an upset, or angry picture, and decide not to give it to the other boy at all, but will find that drawing the picture is therapeutic for him.

Regardless of what happens at school, you can also help your son to process these feelings at home.  He can draw pictures, or act out scenarios with you using teddy bears, or play "separation" games that get him laughing.  You can initiate these by "acting out" separations in front of him.  

For instance, if your son is going into the next room, you can run after him, mock-sobbing and being outrageously silly, and tell him you NEED to stay with him.  Ham it up so that he giggles.  Before you leave the house with him, you might act out leaving with the dog or cat, or a toy teddy bear. First, be silly about it, slapstick. Get your son laughing. Once he's laughed for a bit, you can get more serious. Say to the dog, "Sometimes you're sad when we leave.  Don't worry, we always come back."   Soothe the dog or teddy, and encourage your son to do so.  

You will probably find he loves these games. If you can get him giggling about separation, he will be better able to tolerate whatever feelings he has about his classmate's distress, regardless of what the classmate does. 

I can certainly see why you would wish this new child had not entered your little boy’s life. We try so hard to protect our kids from pain, and this seems so unfortunate for him. But who knows what inner strength your son will develop from this experience, and how that strength will serve him in the future? This incident will certainly give his emotional intelligence a boost, and that may serve him well. Life throws our children curve balls we can never predict, and our job as parents is to give them the empathy and emotional support to grow from those difficult experiences.

That said, I hope the teacher can help ease this situation for your everyone, and quickly. Good luck.

Dr. Laura

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