Helping Children Adjust To Separation
By: Michael Kabel
Children thrive on stability and routine, and that sense of security is almost always anchored by the presence of one or more parents. But sooner or later, be it from day care, school, or nursery, the time comes for the child and parent to separate, if only for a little while.
Separation makes children reevaluate their sense of place.
For very small children, separation can cause no little amount of psychic pain. Because their feelings of security are so tenuous even small separations, like a parent leaving the room, can create panic. For older children starting school, the concept of going hours without parental presence is terrifying.
Children may also store their feelings and unleash them at a later time, for example when reminded of the initial separation. This can happen when the child is left alone to go to sleep or to play by itself. The initial panic, originally suppressed, can no longer be controlled and the emotions spill forth.
Dealing with the pain of separation.
Dealing with the pain of separation may take many forms. Child psychologists also believe it may be the root of many emotional disturbances or behaviors. Children dealing with unresolved separation anxiety will often start fights, be overly affectionate with other children, or wander between activities without paying attention. Parents and supervisors can monitor for such behavior and gently confront the children about their feelings of abandonment or confusion.
Children should also be allowed to let their feelings play out, including crying if necessary, in order to release the pain of separation. Most children, when comforted by a teacher or authority figure, will actually feel better about themselves and closer to the comforter as a result.
Parents need to caution children when longer separations will occur.
Parents can also help prepare their children for the pain of separation when by getting them excited about the event itself. By casting the separation in a positive light, parents will help their children see the experience as an adventure and not a punishment or threat.
Other steps to make the separation less painful
Parents can often ease the pain of separation by allowing the good bye to take as long as necessary, and by being as affectionate as possible during the farewell. Letting the children adjust to the oncoming separation allows them to get their anxiety out of the way first. Parents can also show confidence that the separation is good for both of them, and by showing reassurance that the child is going to be fine.
Involving the teacher, supervisor, or caregiver into the separation also helps smooth the transition. By formally introducing them, the parent helps the child to understand a continuity is being created and that they are not totally alone in their new situation. The parent's endorsement helps reorient the child to the new surroundings.
Finally, parents should not make jokes or belittle the child for feeling anxiety about the separation. By making light of the child's emotions, parents often force them to suppress their feelings, with the ensuing displaced anxiety often finding expression in the problems described above.