We have all been there. Whether it is leaving your child at home for the first time with a babysitter, or the first day of drop off at preschool or daycare. This little person is clinging to you as if life as they know it is about to change forever.
There are many ways that parents can help prepare their children for separation, long before the separation takes place. It requires planning and deliberate effort to build confidence in your child to ease the process so your little person does not hold on to you for dear life as you walk out the door.
Let’s put this in perspective. It is extremely natural for a young child to feel nervous or anxious saying goodbye to mommy and daddy for the first time. Crying, tantrums and clinginess are all normal and healthy reactions to separation in early childhood. For the most part, despite the huge drama which might ensue as you are putting your coat on, children are very quick to bounce back and forget the fact that you have left the house within 5 minutes.
So what can we do to help the first experience of separating be positive for both the parent and the child?
Don’t make the first time away from home too long. Show the child you are returning after a very brief period. Help them ease into the idea of you being way from them.
Do practice separating from the child. Leave your child with a caregiver while you garden outside or run quickly to the store.
Don’t change caregivers too often. Kids respond very well to consistency in all areas of their life. Make sure the child knows and feels safe with the caregiver. Introduce the caregiver on an earlier occasion and have them work with your children while you are home. This way the caregiver can get to know your child and you too can feel comfortable leaving them alone together.
Do be patient and consistent with the messages you send your children. Follow through on your promises to come and see them when you get home at night, or to make pancakes together the next morning. Kids remember EVERYTHING.
Don’t give in. Give your child reassurance that they will be just fine. Setting limits will help the adjustment to separation. Don’t just leave and expect them to wing it.
Don’t make a huge ‘to do’ when you are leaving. The less drama, the better, when you close the door behind you.
Do say goodbye to your child, express your love, and leave. As hard as it is to do, do not stall. This process only drags it out for your children and you end up doing them a disservice.
Don’t leave the child who is on the verge of a meltdown because supper is 20 minutes late and a knock at the door interrupted naptime. Children are more likely to have separation anxiety when they are cranky, hungry and tired. Practice separating from your children during positive moods such as after being fed, or after a nap. Include a ‘goodbye ritual’ such as an extra hug, a kiss through the glass, or a high five.
With understanding, patience, and preparation, most children outgrow their need to have mommy and daddy around. Some children, however, experience separation anxiety that may even worsen over time, despite the parents’ best efforts. If this separation anxiety is excessive and continues into the school years and begins to interfere with school, the formation of friendships, and participation in sports or extra curricular activities, this may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Intervention at this stage would require the help of a professional counselor in order to determine together the strategies that can help your child.
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