Separation Adjustment: Helping Children Say Goodbye
For both working and stay-at-home parents, helping a child adjust to environments outside of the home is an inevitable step that must be taken at some point in early childhood. Even children who spend a significant portion of their time at home with at least one parent must develop the means to cope with being apart from parents. Let’s explore ways parents can support their children in developing the ability to comfortably say goodbye, whether it is for a full day in a day care or preschool setting, or for a few hours at a class, in a play group or with a babysitter.
Communicating With Caregivers
Supporting your child’s developing ability to comfortably function apart from you begins with a good working relationship with your child’s caregiver. Communicating information such as a difficult morning or sleepless night can help provide a more seamless transition for your child, since knowing there is communication on his behalf helps him feel safer. If his difficulties persist throughout the day, the care provider can then step in to give additional support or comment, “Mommy told me this morning was hard. I will help you with this today.”
Young children also benefit from communicating about their day spent away from their parents. Some programs provide parents written summaries or photographs of a child’s daily experiences, which can serve as conversation starters.
Helping Children Participate in Goodbyes
Drop-offs and goodbyes can be challenging for everyone involved. Children need help learning how to comfortably let go, parents need support in feeling it is OK to leave, and teachers and caregivers are usually caught somewhere in the middle. Some children avoid the uncomfortable feelings that come with saying goodbye by running off or becoming interested in an activity or adult caregiver, while others show their struggles more clearly by holding on and resisting the separation. In either case, we have found it is most helpful to talk with your child in an honest way about what is happening by saying, for example, “I know you have found something to do already, but I am leaving and would like to say goodbye first” or “I know this is hard. I will be thinking about you today. You will find a special note from me in your backpack.”
Maintaining Your Image While Apart
Providing your child with reminders of you throughout the day is another way to support her developing comfort and sense of self while she is apart from you. This may be contrary to some schools’ beliefs that children do better when they are not reminded of their parents once mom and/or dad are out of sight. However, our experiences tell us children develop stronger and healthier relationships with parents, as well as with others outside of their family, when they can comfortably think and talk about them while apart. Some programs allow parents to briefly check in with their child, but for those who don’t offer this option, there are other ways to remain present in your child’s mind. Leave a note in her lunchbox or cubby, or allow her to keep a family photograph in her pocket, for example.
Recognizing When There is a Problem
For some children, separation difficulties persist. Ongoing communication with your child’s caregivers can help you understand how he’s doing when you are not present. If you have questions or concerns about your child’s ability to function apart from you, share them with your pediatrician or request a consultation at the Lucy Daniels Center or from another qualified professional.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.