Fall is the time when many families either start new activities or join a preschool or daycare situation. This is a very exciting time as we are given a glimpse into our child’s independence - and the future but inevitable separation from our day-to-day lives.
Saying goodbye and actual separation for the first time can be tough. With first time experiences comes the unknown and this can create fear or anxiety.
Children’s fear of a parent leaving their sight is developmental and first begins with an awareness of object permanence. Object permanence means knowing that an object still exists, even if it is hidden. It requires the ability to form a mental representation of an object.
Infants lack object permanence. Between the ages of 8 – 18 months, babies begin to retrieve hidden objects. From 18 – 24 months, children understand object permanence. They can remember objects and specific people that are not present. They can call up mental pictures of someone who is not there.
Separation anxiety often goes hand-in-hand with this new intellectual skill. Babies notice people leaving before they notice people coming back. The more they understand that people return, the less anxiety they will have upon separation.
Even as children grow and develop new understandings, the parent leaving them on their own can be very unsettling. Sometimes the child can create quite a scene and parents understandably feel awful if they are at a public venue like a day care facility. It can be especially distressing if the child was doing fine with goodbyes but enters a new developmental stage that takes this behavior to a new level.
Facing the Unknowns
The fear of the unknown can bring up anxiety. Sometimes just being able to say what a child is afraid of helps to lessen the fear.
Kids aren’t always able to articulate their fears, though, so they might show it. Look for a change in normal behavior as they begin school or daycare - maybe more meltdowns, trouble sleeping, a change in eating pattern, etc. You can help by reducing the unknowns and preparing your child for separation.
- The Return: Once children learn about leaving, help them to learn about returning. Practice short separations at home. Say goodbye, leave, and come back into the room. Use puppets or dolls and act out one of them leaving and coming back. Peek-a-boo games help with this as well.
- Practice leaving: When you leave the house and the child stays, say a clear, short goodbye. “Bye, Lindy. See you after naptime.” If the child cries, know that this expression of feelings is an excellent release. The caregiver who stays with the child can create a safe space for the child to vocalize his feelings and concerns. Be confident that your leaving is not harming the child.
- Create a routine chart with photos or drawings that includes transitions to and from school. Saying goodbye can be one of the steps of the routine. Practice the routine at home including the goodbye. Review the routine before you leave, making sure to cover the goodbye part.
- Leave with less stress: Make the hour before leaving as simple as possible. Allow plenty of time. The pictures or drawings on your routine chart will help your child know what will happen and make things go more smoothly.
- Try short periods of observation at school or daycare. First, observe that other Moms and Dads leave.
- Prepare with the Rule of Three: Close to the first day of a new experience, engage your child on three separate occasions to help prepare them for the event. There are three steps:
- Tell or show your child the night before what the event will be like. Be brief. It’s an introduction.
- Revisit this a few hours before the situation occurs.
- Remind your child just before the event.
- Explore visually: Read a book about a child's first day of school.
- Model dramatically: Role play what school will be like. You could be the teacher. Or you can use puppets or dolls to act out the event.
- Provide hands-on: Take her to the school site, meet the teacher, and have a tour before she attends so there is less unknown.
The Real Goodbye:
- When you are about to leave the school or daycare, prepare your child for what will happen. “Let’s say bye now. I’m going to help at the sink while you play and then leave in 5 minutes.”
- Be brief, affectionate, and say when you will be back – after snack, after nap, after circle time, etc. Be confident and show that you can handle the goodbye. Give a friendly wave or cheerful smile. If you are concerned or hesitant, your child will have a reason to feel upset. Once the goodbye is said, have the caregiver engage the child with a toy, mirror, musical selection or song, game of peek a boo, etc.
- Use music. The early childhood music collection of Music Together has a wonderful song which addresses this issue called, “They Come Back.”
- Create a short good-bye ritual, for example, a special handshake, bye-bye song, or a specific amount of kisses.
- Create a reunion ritual that the child can look forward to with consistency. Use pictures on the routine chart to represent these rituals.
Sometimes it’s important to recognize if a child is not ready for preschool or certain classes. They might need some weeks to settle into this new idea or catch up to the experience developmentally. If there is the luxury of waiting a month, sometimes that’s a good solution.
Don’t Minimize Your Child’s Feelings
It’s common for parents to try to reassure their kids. “Oh, it will be fine” or “Don’t worry.” It’s more helpful to discuss or re-enact a real (or imagined) situation that causes fear. Coach and guide your child, asking questions and helping him to problem-solve. Sometimes just being able to say what a child is afraid of helps to lessen the fear. If your child is pre-verbal, help them with visuals, like drawings or printed pictures, to understand events and make experiences more tangible.
Even if your child loves school or their new activity, there will be stressful moments, challenges to face, discomfort, and even traumatic events. Give your child some tangible coping skills.
- Breathing: Practice a de-stressing breathing technique. One is “Smell a Flower, Blow a Bubble.’ Hold an imaginary flower (first finger to nose) and deeply breathe its (imaginary) smell. Then pretend to blow a bubble through the imaginary bubble wand on the end of the finger. Do this slowly 3 times.
- Coping Cards: Make some Cognitive Coping Cards specific to your child’s fears. These are portable reminders - on notes or index cards - that children can look at in moments of stress. They might be pictures of your child doing certain activities to remind them that they can do this, a picture of you to remind them they are loved, a picture of a flower to remind them to breathe, or pictures they have drawn that make them feel good. Give them to the caretaker to post or bring out when the child needs them.
The Parent’s Experience
Here’s the real deal: this experience is often much harder on parents than children. Our children are hardwired to pick up on our concerns, worries, and fears. This is your work – to learn to trust in others to care for your child; to work with your own emotional regulation; to be involved and observant, knowing that you can intervene if something doesn’t feel respectful about the current situation.
Well, it’s time. Open your heart wide. There go our children, off to engage with the world.
Annie Keeling of Grass Valley teaches parenting classes at The Nest. Connect with Keeling at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-210-1100.