Five Tips for Reducing Your Child's Separation Anxiety
Few things are more heart-wrenching than the sight of two red, scrunched-up little faces covered in tears, four outstretched arms and tandem howls of "Mama! Mama!" just before you say "I love you, have a good time at school!" and duck out the door. Trust me, I know.
My 2-and-a-half-year-old twins Sadie and Bridget recently began their first drop-off program at the local community centre. It was shockingly tough, for me that is. The night before that first fateful day was a sleepless one, and the increasingly irrational fears mounted. What if they couldn't adjust to the new environment and cried the whole time? What if one of the other kids pushed or (good lord) bit one of my girls? What if one of them decided they hated it there, somehow slipped out the classroom door and then got past the reception staff and everyone else in the centre and managed to get the front doors open and made it outside to freeze in the subzero temperatures?
As you are probably suspecting by now, things got a little crazy by the time the wee hours rolled around, but when I woke up the next morning, I felt calmer, if not entirely sure of myself. A drop-off program was something I had been dreading, but at the same time I felt it would be a valuable and stimulating experience for my children. If only I could figure out some ways to ease the transition a little bit, for all of us.
Five ways to help ease your toddler's separation anxiety, after the jump...
Fortunately there is lots of help at hand for anxious toddlers and nervous parents. There are several great books that can help your child (or children) transition from home to the sometimes scary world of preschool, daycare and drop-off programs. The first was recommended to me by one of the helpful staff at the community centre, and it's widely used by kindergarten teachers to help kids adjust to the first days of school. It's called The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, and it's a story about a raccoon named Chester who is afraid of going to school. His mother gives him a kiss on his palm so that he can lift it up to his cheek any time he feels lonely at school, to know his mother loves him. Two more books with similar themes are Big Truck and Little Truck by Jann Carr and I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas.
That tried-and-true bible of child-rearing, What To Expect: The Toddler Years, helped me come up with some ideas on how to handle my girls' first foray into this strange new land. The book has many handy tips for handling goodbyes (and their website is a fantastic resource too).
Perhaps the irony is that despite the fact that I utilized all these tips, my children still cried desperately when I left them with their new caregivers. However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. The second day of the program, I went early to pick up my toddlers, heart in chest, worried I'd find them bawling in the corner, only to point accusingly when I entered. Fortunately for me, my fears were unwarranted. I was told that my brave little twins stopped crying ten minutes after I left and enjoyed a couple hours of playing, painting, singing and chatting up a storm. I was greeted with hugs and happy exclamations, and my relief was enormous. No doubt there will be shaky days to come (both for them and for me), and those tears will unlikely resurface before long. But at least I know they have the capacity to have fun with their new caregivers, with their new friends, with each other, and without me.
If you're preparing to send your little one off to daycare or a drop-off program for the first time, here are a few handy tips that will help to make the transition a little easier.
1. Prepare her in advance for the separation -- and the reunion, too: I talked to my girls about going to "school" for weeks before it actually happened. I noted that many of their favourite characters from TV and books -- like Dora, Franklin and Timothy -- go to school. We went out and bought backpacks ("just like Dora") that they practicsed filling and wearing before the big day. And I harped on the fact that I'd be picking them up afterward, then we'd have lunch and their nap -- the normal routine they've grown accustomed to.
2. Tell your toddler you love him, but not that you'll miss him: I must admit, I've tended to say "I missed you!" to my children when I've been out for the day while dad or grandma holds down the fort. But I agree with this advice. By saying you'll miss the child, it makes them feel like they should miss you too, and won't let them off the hook to just have fun.
3. Don't be sneaky: As tempting as it is to tiptoe out before they see you in order to avoid the histrionics, this makes sense. Starting a new program might be tough, but turning around and seeing that your parent has disappeared must surely be tougher.
4. Check your own anxieties: I was a wreck the night before their first day, but tried valiantly to keep things light and excited for them. A wise friend suggested we have breakfast after I dropped the kids off -- something that turned out to be an extremely good move. Otherwise, I might have gone home to blubber and wallow in my guilt.
5. Don't look back: Yes, I did hang around for a few minutes after leaving the room, and attempted to peek in the window to see if they were calming down. But I won't do it next time -- really!