Reluctance. Guilt. Anxiety. Uncertainty. Sadness.
Children and adults can certainly experience a wide range of intense emotions at separation times, resulting in a whole lot of drama. Separation anxiety is a normative part of development, but it can still be quite challenging. Young children strive to become more independent, but they still need that feeling of safety and security of having a parent nearby. Despite parents wanting their children to become more independent, adults are often conflicted about their children actually becoming more independent! Children make sense of their world thanks to a keen ability to watch everything and everyone — especially parents — around them, and they behave accordingly. When it comes to separation anxiety, how a parent or caregiver conducts themselves during separation is typically the most significant factor as to whether things go smoothly.
We often hear the refrain “My child won’t let me leave!” The truth is, in this case, it really is not the child’s choice! Adults have a great opportunity to be a guide for children for making goodbyes short and still sweet. Being proactive and creating effective strategies to manage separation can empower children to feel competent, help them develop emotional awareness, build greater capacity for self-control, and further independence.
It’s true that school can be a significant time where separation anxiety shows up, but it is certainly not the only venue. For example, when a young child is put down in her crib for a nap, she starts to cry, reaching her arms up to the caregiver. On your way to the bathroom, your toddler runs after you, grasping your legs and carrying on. A friend or family member wants to hold your baby, and he pulls away in resistance, and reaches out to you. A babysitter arrives to watch your child, and your child becomes visibly distraught, and then his behavior evolves into a full-blown tantrum. Your child is resisting your departure when dropped off at a birthday party or play date.
When adults are proactive, practicing separation strategies in advance, both adults and children will have more confidence when saying goodbye, thus alleviating separation anxiety. Being patient is important, because a child’s behavior can often be inconsistent and can also be affected by life changes. Separation and goodbyes do not need to be full of drama. The less intensity that occurs between you and your child at drop-off, the better it is for all those involved. The calmer you are, the quicker your child can get started with the school day, ready to participate and have fun.
Here are a few tips for smoother separations:
• Approach these situations in a loving, kind, yet firm manner, despite the emotional commotion occurring. Share with your child that everyone can have a great day even when missing one another!
• Acknowledge and share your own feelings about separation in an age-appropriate manner. This can help normalize your child’s experience with saying goodbye.
• Convey matter-of-factly and with confidence to your child that although goodbyes can be challenging, you can (eventually!) manage them well with minimal distress for all involved.
• It is very important to communicate with your child’s teachers about separation prior to the beginning of school.
• Cultivate trust by always telling your child you are leaving. Do not prolong or drag out goodbyes, regardless of whether your child seems distressed.
• Add an element of playfulness for saying goodbyes, because even goodbyes can be fun!
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