In all situations, there comes a time when separation is inevitable. Whether a death across the country or a business trip in another state mandates it, there will come a time when you have to pull the tiny fingers off of your own and step away from the leg hug so familiar to you. Some mothers have expressed to me the trauma experienced from the first morning of day care leaving them worried that their toddler would not survive the culture’s misconception that maturity demands a pulling away from parental figures. It certainly takes root in the adolescent stage when it’s too late to correct the error.
So, what can we do to lessen the trauma associated with our having to do what we don’t want to do? Read on:
- Affirm to your children that you will be back. Explain the schedule, no matter how young the child is, and tell them you intend to come back for them.
- Speak in terms of your intent. Try not to say things like, “I will,” but use, “I plan to.” This helps to lessen the anxiety for older children who can tell time and hold you morally accountable for the 10 minutes of traffic that slowed you down.
- Forewarn your children. Before the separation, communicate matter-of-factly that they will be dropped in half an hour. Even children who cannot yet tell time appreciate knowing what’s happening ahead of time.
- Establish a ritual. Create a chant or handshake that’s unique for your crew or even for each child. One family passes on a parent-reminder in the form of a necklace; it’s given to the child when dropped off and turned back in to parent at pickup.
- Bless your child. However your faith practice suggests, offer a prayer, expression, poetry, etc. Children enjoy hearing your voice and will memorize the mantra eventually. Routine brings a sense of calm, but expect them to pull away from the blessing as they grow older and more confident.
- Leave reminders throughout the day that give your child comfort. For some, stepping into school lunchtime is helpful. For others, a little sticky note on a water bottle is best. Younger children especially do not want another separation, so physically making your presence known may be more harmful than leaving a doodle in toddler’s pocket.
- If there is a varying schedule, use a signaler. When I’m not the one picking up my daughter from school, I send her pink lunchbox; when I am picking up, I send her purple lunchbox. If my son has a certain after-school program, on that one day, he wears a certain belt. Find a simple reminder that signals the varying schedule.
- Ask child care providers to use subtle cues when pickup time is approaching. This may be giving the child a particular binky or stuffed animal that signals the parent is soon returning.
- For older children especially, establish any pickup expectations before you drop off: homework should be done, instrument practiced, at least 10 minutes of physical activity, etc. These short-term goals help them learn responsibility and time management.
- Finally, control yourself. Take time to say goodbye, listen to and share in their sorrow, but hold those tears for the car after you’ve quickly dropped off and not looked back. Let your little ones feel safe by learning from your confidence.
As children see your emotion and attitude, they will build response and routine. Separation may not get easier. For me, my heart still bleeds a little when I have to leave my youngest, and she’s been on a full-time schedule separate from me for three years now. What I can tell you is that the schedule gets easier and the pickups sweeter as we focus on communication, reminders, and ritual. We grow stronger together with intentional focus on using our together moments well.
By Yaki Cahoon