Has your child ever sobbed when you leave him or her at child care?
It can be distressing when your child is crying, and separating can be hard on both parents and children. But separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for healthy, emotionally secure young children.
In one way, it's a good sign when children are so attached to parents that they are unhappy when parents leave them, even for short periods of time.
It shows there is a strong bond between parent and child. That bond is necessary for the child to grow into a confident, independent person.
Parents, however, need free time away from the children - for a couple of hours while they go to a movie or for eight hours while they work. Parents can make separations easier for themselves and the children by preparing for it.
Build a ‘love bond'
Babies cry when they are distressed - cold, hungry or tired of lying in one position. When you respond to the cries and ease the distress, babies begin to associate you with feeling comfortable. They rely on you to come when they cry. Gradually they begin to love and trust you. Once babies feel secure, it is easier for them to say "goodbye" when parents leave for an hour or a day.
Some parents think responding to babies every time they cry will spoil them, but the opposite is true. Research shows when parents respond quickly and consistently to cries during the first months, babies cry less often and for less time later on. Babies who have been ignored are the very ones who fuss and cry a good deal and are difficult to control.
Make the change gradually
Adjusting to new places, new faces and new routines is difficult for children. Doing something for the first time is scary even for adults. Children going to nursery school, church school or a day care center need to have mother or father with them at first. Ease children into new situations. Plan to visit a new place several times and stay with the child.
Learn the names of the teacher, the children your child will play with and the routine. Then you can talk to your child about what to expect. For example, "Tomorrow we are going to school and you can play with Kay and Tamara and Mitch and Bart. Mrs. Noel is the teacher."
Explain the routine so the child will know what to expect. For example, "Tomorrow when you go to school, you can play with the other children. You will have lunch, take a nap, and then play outside. I will come for you when the little hand on the clock points to the 5."
Expect some anxiety
Adjusting to new situations is difficult for children and adults. When children begin attending nursery school, a day care center, or kindergarten for the first time, they may express their anxiety by being irritable, whining, having nightmares, wetting their pants or clinging to you. Be calm and don't add to the anxiety. Give them time to adjust.
If unusual behavior continues for any length of time, you may need to give the child a half-hour more attention at bedtime or find a quieter center where groups are smaller. You may need to talk to the child's teacher or change to a different place where the child will be content.
Never sneak away
While it may be tempting to slip out when your child is playing, it will make your child more anxious. If you want your child to become more comfortable and well adjusted, tell him or her "goodbye" each day before you leave. Make it short and say it only once. Remind your child, "I will be back and (the teacher) will take care of you."
Always tell the child when you are going and when you will be back, even though the child may not understand your words. For example, "I'm going to work now and I'll be back at 5 o'clock." For children who don't understand time, use events such as "after your nap" or "after you play outside."
Give the child a hug, a kiss and wave "good-bye."
Bring something familiar
When children go to a day care center or nursery school, they may feel a little lost at first. Allow them to take a favorite toy with them. It helps them feel safer in a strange place.
Don't prolong leaving
Often parents worry about leaving their children. If the child fusses or cries, the parents fear the child will fuss or cry the whole time they are gone. They hang around and say, "I'm going now, OK?" If the parent is unsure about leaving, the child will certainly feel unsure about being left!
Prepare children ahead of time, leave them in good hands, then tell them goodbye and leave. Don't stretch it out; children may cry a few minutes, but usually, as soon as you are gone, they get over it.
Preparing children for separations makes it easier for the parent and the child. Parents can leave knowing the child will be all right while they are gone. If someone else will be picking up your child, make sure you tell her who that will be.
Make a routine, such as a special kiss or a wave from the window. When you do the same thing every day, your child feels reassured. Gentle good-byes help children feel safe and comfortable in child care.
Adapted from Virginia State University Cooperative Extension and Penn State Cooperative Extension
Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Her Family Ties column runs in Sunday Life on the first Sunday of each month. Contact: 770-535-8290.