Oh, the anguish of leaving a crying, confused, uncertain child in the hands of “stranger”, even when that “stranger” is a loving teacher reassuring you that “everything will be ok”. It doesn’t feel ok! Separation challenges can raise heart-wrenching doubt for parents expecting a fun and happy experience for children to play and learn. Is my child not ready? Is it worth the struggle? Why am I doing this to my child?
Loving separations are not hurtful or harmful. They are a supportive process of social-emotional skill-building as toddlers and preschoolers learn what it means to play and learn in new environments, without mom, dads, grandparents or familiar babysitters. Each child is different. Some eagerly embrace change and new experiences. Others need time to feel safe and confident in new situations. Temperament, age and past experiences all influence each individual journey.
Toddlers and younger preschoolers are still forming concepts of time so they don’t know that an hour doesn’t last forever. Younger siblings who have watched their most trusted ally get dropped off in fun classrooms, want to go from diapers to pre-k – not because anyone explained to them it was ok but rather because they witnessed first-hand the emotional safety and excitement. Some kids, after years of positive school experience, still feel tears in their emotional fabric, and will through college, because they are the tender hearted.
While teachers of young children are adept at handling just about any separation issue, here are a few essential social-emotional skill-building practices that can help your child, not just survive, but learn and grow from age-appropriate separations.
Build trust with the teachers.
Trust begins with a parent’s own emotional state. If you are hesitant, doubt-ridden and guilty, your child knows! Your child senses the contradiction. Remember, right-brains “read” right brains so no amount of logic or verbal reassurance can undo what your child feels directly from you. So, if you have doubts, you can say something like, “It’s hard to say good bye but remember I love you and I can’t wait to see you later”. Add quick kisses as you light-heartedly release your child, physically and emotionally, to the teacher’s safe and loving arms.
Create predictability with the new environment.
Your child is also learning to trust the security of a new routine. It can be very unsettling when a child feels lost, or worse powerless, in a new situation. School can never be exactly like home because teachers are juggling the needs and interests of a group of children while honoring and celebrating each individual child – that’s part of the wonderful socialization of being in a school program. Rest assured that developmental programs have the perfect mix of predictability and excitement. You, as the parent, can help your child feel control over new routines by letting them bring something from home to share, by letting them chose what to wear, or by making a sequence game with picture cards of daily activities, centers and even faces from your child’s school.
Teach emotional literacy.
One of the hardest thing a parent ever has to face is their children’s difficult emotions. There are no bad emotions. So, while it breaks your heart, your child is really learning that he is safe and will be well-loved through these challenging emotions like sadness, anger, confusion, impatience, and uncertainty. Teachers and parents are working together to help children think and feel at the same time. Now, that’s not easy with toddlers who can spontaneously dissolve in flash tantrums. Just as you can’t stop a tantrum once it starts, rather you stand by ready to help solve the problem or comfort afterwards, so with separation meltdowns. Be ready with comfort and possibly a plan when your child is calm enough to hear-see-feel that there might be something worthwhile in this new mysterious place.
Have an exit plan.
Of course, every plan is unique because children connect to different strategies and different messages. Yet, all young children are concrete thinkers so they need an “exit plan” that has immediate, visible guideposts. Say good bye confidently clearly explaining where you are going. Where is mommy when she leaves: at work or at Publix buying all your child’s favorite foods? Choose an image that is simple and clear for your child to understand, not just disappearing.
Practice transitions together.
Help your child transition into the classroom by choosing, with the teacher, your child’s most favorite, engaging activity: the kitchen, the texture table, an art project. Children get stuck in one situation because they aren’t confident that the next moment will be better than the current moment. Help your child focus forward to see the fun that is waiting for him. Similarly, build strategies for other natural transition times – that’s usually when kids fall apart and fall into the emotional black hole. Sequence games appeal to the logically minded kids while power-n-control games (helpers, foot stomping, monster mashing movements) appeal to the physical or social sides.
The mantra: my mommy comes back
Regardless of the best planning, children only learn that mommy comes back from seeing mommy leave and come back. Yes, it’s not just mommies but daddies, grandparents, and many loving grow-ups who leave and come back. This timeless phrase has been children’s separation mantra since 1987 when Hap Palmer first wrote the song. You can also read the beautiful wordless book, Hug by Jez Alborough, that captures a little monkey’s deep sadness with a perfect reassuring ending.
So don’t rush your child into separations yet don’t shield your child from separations. Instead, help your child to discover that he is enormously capable when you are not immediately there. There’s a child-size world waiting just for him with new friends and new activities.