EASING SEPARATION ANXIETY
National Network for Child Care's Connections Newsletter
Carol Thiel, M.S.
Missouri Parents as Teachers Program
Often, the fall months bring new children to our child care group. These children usually go through an adjustment period before they adapt as regular members of the group. Children react differently to separation. Some children may be upset for a day, others for several weeks. One child may cry for only a few minutes; another child may cry all day.
What can you do to make this adjustment period smoother for the child, the parents, and you?
HELPING PARENTS. First, tell the parents an adjustment period is normal and expected. Ask them to help by keeping the child's home life as calm as possible during the first few weeks. Encourage them to talk with you daily so you can share news about how the adjustment is going. Talk with parents ahead of time about how to leave. Explain that children will feel better if the parent is understanding but positive about the separation. When it is time to leave, they should do so without hesitating but also without "sneaking" away.
HELPING CHILDREN. Next, concentrate on getting the child accustomed to the routines of your program. Keep in mind that the daily routine is a wristwatch to a young child. How would you feel if you were taken someplace where there were no clocks, and you had no idea what was going on or when you would go home? The daily routine tells the child what "time" it is and what comes next. Knowing the classroom routine will help the child predict when mom or dad will come back. You can help the child learn your routine by listing what you will do until the child's parents arrive. Go over this list as many times as the child wants. Throughout the day, remind the child what the next activity will be. After a while, start asking the child to tell you what comes next.
Try to stay close to your normal routine for at least the first three weeks of a new child's stay. If possible, hold off field trips until the child is more secure.
Allow the child to bring a special blanket or pillow for comfort during this transition time. Have a cozy chair in a comfort zone where the child can go and rest with his blanket or pillow when feeling sad. At first, you can go with the child to this place for reassurance, but aim for that to be a place the child can go for comfort.
Keep in mind that the attention you give to a new child can be resented by the "old" children. This is a similar response to older children's reactions to a new baby sibling. Locate photos of the older children when they first came to your child care setting and remind them of things you did to help them adjust. Suggest ways the older children could help you with the new child. They could get diapers, show the new child where to put clothes, how to open the door, etc.
Point out how nice it is to have children who already know the routine and can help you teach the new child. And be sure to encourage the children to express their feelings. You can help to relieve some of the other children's concerns by saying, "Joey cries so much I feel sad, but when he gets to know us better, he won't feel like crying any more."
YOUR NEEDS. Constantly remind yourself that this period of anxiety is usually over in a few weeks. Give yourself a break, too. Get lots of rest during these weeks so that you can be as patient, understanding, and loving as possible. You may find, as I did, that your most challenging new child soon becomes one of the best-adjusted, happiest children in your group.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS. There are some times in a child's life that will cause difficult transitions to new settings. For example, between 5 and 11 months many babies go through a period characterized by separation anxiety. At this point in their lives, they are smart enough to recognize someone as a "stranger," and having a stranger near makes them anxious.
Another special case is children who have a new sibling. They are already going through enough changes at home without the worries of changing caregivers. If you realize that a major event is occurring in a child's life, you might suggest that parents postpone a child care change until this period passes.
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