For both working and stay-at-home parents, helping their children adjust to environments outside of the home is an inevitable step that will 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 have to develop the means to cope with being apart from their parents (babysitters, play dates, sleepovers, and classes and groups outside of the home for those who are homeschooled). This month, we will focus on some of the ways parents can support their children in developing the ability to comfortably say goodbye, whether it is for a full day in a daycare or preschool setting or a few hours at a class, in a play group, or with a babysitter.
Communication with Caregivers
Supporting your child’s developing ability to comfortably function apart from you begins with a good working relationship with the caregiver. Your ability to communicate information such as a difficult morning or a sleepless night can help provide a more seamless transition for your child, helping him feel safer knowing that there is communication on his behalf. For instance, if his difficulties persist throughout the day, the care provider, knowing this, can step in to provide additional support or can comment, “Mommy told me this morning was hard. I will help you with this today.”
In a similar way, once the day is over, young children benefit from help with communicating parts of their day spent away from their parents. Some programs provide parents with written summaries or photographs of a child’s experiences from the day that serve as a springboard for questions or conversations about their child’s day. For example, a comment or photo of a child painting can help start a conversation later in the day, “I heard from your teacher that you painted today. Can you tell me more about that?”
Helping Children Participate in Goodbyes
Drop-offs and goodbyes can be a challenging transition for all of those involved. Children need help with learning how to comfortably let go, parents need support in feeling like it is okay to leave, and teachers and caregivers are usually caught somewhere in the middle. All programs have their own way of handling this part of the day, but regardless of the drop-off routine (whether it is in the classroom or daycare setting or by the front door) you can take some steps to help your child pay attention to and participate in the goodbye. Some children avoid the uncomfortable feelings that come with saying goodbye by quickly 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 that it is most helpful to talk with children in an honest way about what is happening; that is, either saying, “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 an Image of You while Apart
Providing your child with reminders of you throughout the day is another way you can support your child’s developing comfort and sense of self while apart from you. We understand that this is contrary to some schools of belief that insist that children do better when they are not reminded of their parents once they are out of sight. However, our experiences tell us that children develop stronger and healthier relationships with their 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 call in to briefly check in with their child, but for those who don’t offer this as an option, there are other ways to remain present in your child’s mind: a note left in his lunchbox or cubby, a family photograph in his pocket or somewhere he can refer to throughout the day, or a personal belonging he can hold onto.
Recognizing when there is a Problem
For some children, difficulties with adjusting to being away from parents persist. Ongoing communication with those caring for your child can help provide you with an understanding of how he or she is when you are not present. If you have questions or concerns about your child’s ability to function apart from you, share your concerns with your pediatrician, request a consultation at the Lucy Daniels Center or from another qualified professional.