Saying goodbye is one of the most difficult tasks that people learn in life. Learning to handle separation is an emotionally difficult task that begins in infancy. Too often, parents and caregivers mishandle the child’s transition between them, and the child is left feeling scared and abandoned. “Maybe mommy isn’t ever coming back.”
Failing to provide the necessary support that children need, to separate well, may have a negative effect on the child’s future relationships. The parent’s own feelings of anxiety and sadness, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, insensitivity to the child’s emotions, can have a profound effect on a child’s level of separation anxiety.
If separating is handled with sensitivity, children develop confidence and independence and feel secure when left in the hands of a loving and competent caregiver.
Mistake #1-Ignore the child’s fears-Many parents think that ignoring a child’s anxiety, anger, stress and fear makes separating easier. Mom or dad might believe that springing the separation on the child and sneaking out, like ripping off a band-aid, won’t give the child time to get worked up, tearful and upset. Other parents may not be sensitive to the fact that separating is a big deal, “Why is he so upset, I am just running out for an hour.” Don’t tell the child his or her feelings are insignificant.
Solution: Explain to the child calmly, clearly and briefly, what he or she should expect. Use the same ritual before each separation. For example: enter the room, hang the child’s coat, put the snack away, take out a loved toy, give a big hug and kiss, etc. Do not sneak out or use a distraction to duck out of the room. In new situations, parents should allot adequate time to hang around while the child becomes acclimated to his new surroundings. The parent should reassure the child that mommy/daddy is coming back soon and should expect the child to feel some distress. Separating is tough.
Mistake #2-Emphasize the fun and excitement of the activity-Disregarding that the child is feeling frightened, and instead focusing on how much fun she is going to have, does not ease separation fears. The child may be confused and not understand why she is being left and wondering if mommy or daddy will ever return. While upset the child is not able to focus on the fun things in store for her while mom is away.
Solution: Short absences initially (30-90 minutes) are easier for children. Ensure that the child understands what is happening by using the same description of the situation before each separation. “Mommy is going to have her teeth cleaned, remember we passed the dentist’s office on the drive over here? I will be back shortly to pick you up and then we will go to the park and have our lunch. I know that you feel a little afraid because this is a new place to play and I am leaving. Miss Melanie is really kind and happy to play with you, I like her very much. I love you and I am coming back to pick you up as soon as my teeth are shiny.” Explaining what to expect gives the child a sense of control.
Mistake #3-Neglecting to give the reunion its proper consideration-“Grab your coat, let’s get in the car, we are late!”…is not a proper hello after being separated from a child. Having a conversation with the caregiver before acknowledging the child, is also a mistake.
Solution: Handling the reunion between parent and child with sensitivity is just as important as the goodbye. The child is relieved that the parent has returned as promised. Develop a warm and loving routine used for returns. Positive relationship development relies on reuniting with joy and happiness. Using a special routine honors the loving bond between parent and child.