This will be the first of a new series on Separation. It is a topic that, in my opinion, is to broad and to important to delve into in just one post. This first in YikeDat’s new series will focus on the “Why” of separation. Why does separation happen? Why is it important? Why is it so easy for some children, and so difficult for others.
As a preschool teacher, I’ve witnessed what seems like thousands of scenarios of children separating from their parents or caretakers for the first time in their lives. Some are quick and easy. A few are as simple and clear as a two year old child telling his mother to leave the classroom a few minutes after arriving on their first day. Sometimes it is more challenging. I’ve seen children who cry every time they are dropped off at school for months. Sometimes it seems inconsistent or random, where a child is fine separating one day and horrified at the thought of being at school without parents the next.
Over the years working with young children, I’ve learned that this seemingly random variation in comfort with separation from child to child and from day to day is a lot less random than it appears. Some portion of the ease of separation at the first day of school (or the first time leaving a child with a sitter, or at a daycare) can be attributed to the child’s temperament (personality). Some children are simply more comfortable being away from their caretakers than others. A portion of this ease (or unease) can be attributed to a child’s mood. A child who is sad, tired, or anxious will be less likely to want to separate from their parents or caretaker than a happy, energetic, or excited child.
Yet another contributing factor to a child’s comfort with separating is the circumstance surrounding the separation itself. A child who is going through many changes or transitions at once, or even one or two changes or transitions that seem big to a young child, can easily make it more challenging for a preschooler to separate. This can even explain why some children are fine separating one day, and have a difficult time the next. One of the most common of this type of change or transition that I’ve come across in my years as a teacher is pregnancy, or the birth of a younger sibling. Other changes that I often see include things like moving to a new house (or to a new city), a family member getting sick, a death in the family, discontinuing a nap, toilet training, or any number of other small changes in routine. If you’re trying to figure out if a particular circumstance or situation may be affecting your child’s separation (or any other aspect of your child’s behavior), think about how you feel (or how you would feel) in that situation, and then multiply any anxiety, concern, worry, sadness, joy or any other emotion you have at least ten fold. Children are much more sensitive to even small changes in their environment and routine and can easily be affected by things that we, as adults, might not have as difficult of a time with.
While factors like context, temperament, and mood all play a role (and potentially a very big role) in a child’s ability to separate, I find that there is something that often plays an even bigger role: parents. Separation can be hard for children, of course, but it can be just as difficult, if not more so, for the parents. For the first time in your life, and in your child’s life, you are leaving your child in the care of someone else, potentially a stranger in the case of a school, and you don’t know what will happen. You are relinquishing control of your child and his or her safety and you are seeing your child take his or her first big steps towards growing up. Letting go of your child is never easy.
That being said, children read parents’ emotions and play off of them. If you are nervous, worried, or sad about your child’s separation, your child will be as well. A lot of situations that I see where a child is fine separating one day, and not the next, is a case of projection on the parent’s part. A parent will notice their child is a little under the weather, sad, or clingy in the morning while getting ready for school and become preoccupied with the idea of that leading to a challenging day at school. Children are resilient and have frequent mood swings. A difficult morning for a child does not necessarily lead to a difficult afternoon, as it often does for adults. Parents, then, show worry or concern and the child picks up on it, becoming worried or concerned themselves, making the separation difficult. This type of play on parent’s emotions and parent’s difficulty separating can, as I said, explain the inconsistency of some children’s separation comfort, but it can also explain children who have consistent difficult with separation (or even help explain those children who consistently have an easy time separating).
Any number of these factors (temperament, mood, context, and parents) can impact separation for a child and they can combine in any number of ways to create the thousands of scenarios that I mentioned earlier. Check back soon for more on separation including information on how to prepare for separation to make it as easy as possible for your and your child, my own personal experiences with separation, and more.