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David Baxter PhD

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Helping Preschoolers Cope With Separation
By Joan E. LeFebvre,

Saying goodbye isn't always easy for little ones. Learn ways to ease children's anxieties and use separation times to build trust between you and your preschooler.

At some point, most of us have been witness to a painful scene: A child's separation-anxiety meltdown. It goes something like this: A three-year-old wails "Don't leave me here! I wanna go hooome!" as his frazzled mother attempts to loosen the iron grip he managed to establish on her leg. Clearly, no amount of lighthearted "won't-today-be-fun" banter on the drive to preschool had managed to stave off this episode. She probably dared to believe he was prepared, hoping against hope for a nonchalant kiss on the cheek and breezy wave goodbye. But nope. She found herself in the octopus-like clutches of a child with separation anxiety.

Although a strong relationship with parents helps children to cope with their anxiety as the time for goodbyes approaches, first "big" separations can be challenging for child and parent alike. As soon as babies have the capacity to remember a parent, beginning at approximately seven months of age, many children weep as though they've been eternally forsaken when mom or dad walks out the door. Toddlers cling koala-like to their mothers when they sense her imminent departure.

Separation fears may be more intense in children who are temperamentally "slow-to-warm-up" and have difficulty making transitions or entering new situations. They can experience a variety of emotions such as anger, guilt, jealousy, confusion, hurt, and fear. Preschool children may regress to outgrown behavior like whining, crying, and bed-wetting, or may become more aggressive and demanding. So what can be done to minimize the chance that your child will suffer from fears of separation?

Security Blanket or Favorite Toy
Linus was onto something: A favorite toy or blanket can help your child feel more confident and secure. Research shows that children who are given "transitional objects" cry less when they are separated from their parents. These children are also able to explore their environment more actively and focus on and learn new tasks better than children not in the possession of a favorite item.

No Parental Guilt!
Parents often feel guilty and distressed about their child's natural reaction to a separation and may unwittingly prolong and reinforce a separation reaction. There are two ways in which a parent can go wrong here: By leaving too soon and by not leaving soon enough. You walk a fine line, and choosing the perfect moment to make your move can be tricky. But whatever you do, be sure to say goodbye. Don't just sneak out as soon as your child's attention is diverted. On the other hand, don't linger. Reassure your preschooler through your words and your actions that everything will be fine in your absence and that you will come back for him soon.

Suggestions for Parents
  • Before you leave, tell the child you are going, and mention when you will return. It may help to say something like "...and I'll pick you up at 11 o'clock just like last week" to enable her to imagine the duration of her separation from you. In order to bear being apart, a child must know that the parent will return.
  • After you say you are leaving, go! If you linger because of the child's whining, then you are teaching your child that whining is an effective way to get what he wants.
  • Expressing affection for your child is appropriate, but separation is made more difficult if you, the parent, verbally or nonverbally express ambivalence, guilt, worry, or uncertainty about leaving the child. Be confident! The parent's emotional response to separation is a common cause of the child's emotional response.
  • Practice with brief separations first. Show your child that you return reliably.
  • Don't be late picking your child up! Be on time, or even a little early. Children can get very distressed, feeling abandoned if all the other children have been picked up and they're "left alone."
  • Provide a consistent routine that children can count on, and stick with it. Most adults feel more secure when they know what's going to happen next. Children have an even greater need for routine.
  • Allow children some time to get accustomed to new people. Kids feel more secure when they know and trust their caregivers. If your child is slow to adapt to new situations, she may even need a few weeks to transition. Patience is key.
  • Separation anxiety is normal; to children, separation is the most threatening of all situations. On rare occasions, however, it may be a red flag that there's a problem that you should know about. Talk to your child and your day care provider about what your child experiences at day care. Perhaps she gets teased by other children or is afraid of the class's pet guinea pig. Maybe he thinks the teacher looks like mean Uncle Albert! Whatever the cause, when separation anxiety persists it makes sense for you to be proactive and sleuth out the reason so that it can be addressed and overcome.
Never Threaten a Child With Separation
Parents sometimes resort to threatening little children with "going away" in order to frighten them into better behavior. It's true this often results in some improvement in the child's conduct, since the possibility of losing a parent is so upsetting that he will do anything to avoid it. But these threats may also produce extreme anxiety in the child. Basically this kind of threat tells the child that you would be willing and able to leave him at any time. A bad act, he realizes, might cause him to lose his parents forever. Better for the child to be confident that he can count on your love and support through thick and thin.

To Sum It Up
Be patient and thorough when explaining the reason for your departure to your child. Doing so can help her feel confident that you will return, and that she hasn't done anything "bad" to make you leave. Because young children lack a real understanding of cause and effect, they may not be clear on points that you consider obvious. If your child does regress to outgrown behavior, you may need to adjust your expectations and standards. Strive to establish a consistent routine. Pay particular attention to basic needs such as sleep, meals and exercise. Your child needs to feel that you are dependable, that he can count on you to do as you say you will. Use separations as opportunities to build the level of trust between you.
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