PARENTS
09/29/2011 10:50 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2011

My Son Has Separation Anxiety And Makes A Scene When I Drop Him Off At Nursery School

Dear Susan,

My son is 3 years old and this is his first week at pre-school. He is having a hard time adjusting. My husband drops him off because when I do he cries and grabs on to me so intensely that I feel terrible for leaving him. And, I feel miserable all day. At night, my son cries and says he doesn't want to go. He's been attending a home day-care for the last year so separation is not new. I don't know if I can handle another week of feeling like this. Is it right to keep sending him?

Signed, Torn Mama
Dear Torn,

Your question is likely to spark a debate among our readers. Some will suggest that at three years of age, your little boy isn’t ready for the structure and stimulation of preschool, and that he would be better served if you went back to home care with fewer children and one primary caregiver. Others will advise you to continue sending him to school, and assure you that once he’s been there for a few weeks, he’ll adjust happily.

I wish I could tell you that it is or isn’t “right” to keep sending your son to preschool, but unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. No one knows your son like you and your husband do; in the end, you’re going to have to go with your instincts. But perhaps I can help by offering some ways to help your son adjust more easily.

Transition into success. You may find that it helps to have your son spend less than the usual amount of time at school -- even 30 minutes, at first -- progressing to a full school day within a couple of weeks. By getting used to being there in smaller increments of time, he may more quickly adjust.

Establish parting rituals, focusing on the time when he’ll be reunited with you, rather than on separation. “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family!” Talk about what you’ll do when you pick him up; “First I’ll hug and kiss you a lot, and then we’ll drive home and have a yummy lunch!”

Tell your husband not to leave when your son isn’t looking. It might be tempting to sneak off, but it can create tremendous anxiety; your son will most likely become hyper-vigilant in his focus on Daddy’s whereabouts if he doesn’t watch him leave. Even if he’s crying while Daddy says goodbye, it's okay.

Empower his teachers with activities, toys or songs that you know are soothing to your son. The more they are able to offer a familiar version of comfort to him, the better he’ll be able to relax in their care.

Strengthen the bond he has with at least one of his preschool teachers. A three-year old recognizes that his survival depends upon being cared for by someone to whom he is securely attached and who will look after him lovingly. Spend time with his special teacher. Invite her or him out to lunch, or even to your home for a meal. Mention the teacher to grandparents or neighbors with your son present, so this person begins to feel more like part of your son's tribe. Place a school photo on the mantel. Visit the classroom before other children arrive so the two of them can connect in a more relaxed way. When your son gets a chance to develop a bond with his teacher, he or she will become a “safe haven” in your absence.

In the end, I encourage you to consider the comments I’ve offered here, then quiet the debate in your head so your heart can weigh in. It may well be that after trying these ideas for another week or two with little improvement, you’ll decide to go back to a home care situation for a few months. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Some children aren’t ready for the emotional demands of preschool at three, but do very well at three and a half!

By incorporating practical strategies to help your son adjust to school while relying on your parental instincts, I trust you will make the best decision for your child.

Yours in parenting support,
Susan, HuffPost's Parent Coach

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.