Q: I have a 3 year old and a 5 year old, and we have, like many families, spent more time than ever together this past year. But now that we are resuming some of our old activities, slowly, they are showing signs of separation anxiety. What can I do to ease this?
I have received many calls in the last few weeks from parents needing help with a child who is experiencing a regression when it comes to separation. Interestingly enough, children of different ages are having a tough time. It is in conjunction with worrying about many things associated with going back to school.
Some children actually never “went” to nursery school or kindergarten or middle school. Their first experience at their new school was on Zoom. Those children have no familiarity with the school, the classroom environment, the bathrooms or what it really feels like to be in school. They know the teacher only through a screen. These little children may not have even experienced separation yet. I would expect them to go slowly.
Learning to attend school independently, attending a ballet or karate class by himself, or a 5-year-old going on solo playdates are milestones through which all young children must pass. For some it is easier; for others it is a challenge that takes time. And no one can really predict how the process will go for any child. When I was a school director, I was always amused that the child who seemed the least ready was often the one who had the easiest time. And the parent who proclaimed that her child would separate easily and quickly seldom did. You just never know!
What I do know is that separation is a process. It is not something that can be forced or rushed without causing some scaring down the road. Separation is built on trust, especially for our youngest children. They need to have formed a trusting relationship with the parent substitute with whom you are leaving them. It is the single most important milestone that happens early in a child’s school career.
For children who had previously separated from their parents and were already independently attending school, the process was complete. The quarantine started in March, six months after the start of school, and they are old pros. That does not mean, however, that these children will have an easy time of it. As I said, every child is different.
Having been home with Mommy, Daddy or a care giver for all these months can very easily have undermined the child’s previously mastered separation process. We humans are adaptable. That is the good news and the bad news. They may have habituated to your proximity and availability—to get food, to be supportive, to solve problems, all of it. And you will have to start over, encouraging his independence.
How I wish we had talked at the start of this whole quarantine. I would have encouraged you to leave your child alone for increasing periods of time, to expect him to be by himself, to make it easy for him to work and play by himself, and not to be so available to him. Perhaps you did that and your sensitive child has regressed. So be it.
When it comes to separation, I am not a “pull off the bandage” sort of person. Rather, while at home, I suggest you go slowly, praising the progress, not giving in to unhappiness. Be the faith in your child that he may not have. Be sure that you spend time with one child without the other. Each parent can take one child out alone or leave the other at home with a sitter. Both parents should go out during the day and leave the children together at home (with childcare!). Separation can happen in lots of different scenarios. But the children need to see they can do it. Their unhappiness should not sabotage the process.
Hopefully, when school starts, your children will have teachers who understand the importance of separation and will allow you, the parent, to take the necessary time with your child.
Be patient. Every child gets there. Sometimes I need to remind parents that it is unlikely that they’ll be accompanying the child on his honeymoon!
BBB is a child development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades. She can be reached through betsybrownbraun.com.
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