Whether you are contemplating leaving your infant in child care for the first time or taking your preschooler to his first day of school, the anticipation of your baby’s cries or toddler begging you not to leave is enough to weaken the knees of even the most experienced moms.
But, as Shannon Schultheis, director of Oklahoma City’s Warm World school, often reminds parents: “It’s part of the developmental process to expect separation anxiety at some point during childhood.”
Like many child care providers, Schultheis said a big part of her job is helping parents adjust to that developmental milestone.
“It takes guts to leave your most important possession with anyone outside of your home,” said Schultheis. “I never want a parent to feel bad that they are emotional or worried about this.”
While the emotions can be tough to manage, there are six steps parents can take to make the dreaded drop-off easier to endure.
Tour the facility ahead of time.
Tynell Mitchell, owner of Momma Bears Child Care Home LLC, asks parents to bring their children to tour her home before their first day. Parents’ anxiety is quelled as they see her home is a safe, healthy environment for their children and the child feels more comfortable after meeting the caregiver and seeing where he or she will be spending time.
Look for a daily schedule posted for children to see; once your child begins attending, that visual reminder of routine and consistency can help alleviate separation anxiety.
Have a plan.
Even if your child isn’t yet verbal, plan your drop-off routine and discuss the plan with your child multiple times beforehand. For example, just saying “Mommy will take you to see Miss Tynell, we’ll hang your bag on the hook, I’ll kiss you and then you’ll get to go play with puzzles and sing songs until Mommy comes back to pick you up” can provide a lot of comfort.
Children find comfort in routine, and familiarizing your child with what to expect can alleviate some drop-off anxiety. Even if you’re talking to an infant, verbalizing the plan ensures you remember and execute it.
“The idea is that the child will come to trust the routine of drop-off, trust that the parent will come back when they say they will and therefore trust that it's okay to stay and have fun,” Schultheis said.
Be positive and consistent.
Understandably, that carefully crafted plan often goes out the window when tears emerge at drop-off. Work with your child care facility to help you execute your drop-off plan. Remember, they are used to dealing with separation anxiety and can help with distraction techniques.
It’s important for parents to stay positive during drop-off, said Director of Trinity Child Development Center Amanda McDaniel, even when they are feeling apprehensive themselves. Children of all ages are extremely perceptive and if they sense that you are afraid or nervous, they will be, too.
Dropping kids off and picking them up at the same time each day will also make the transition into child care easier, says McDaniel. Consistency and praise at pick-up is just as important as drop-off.
“Parents should reassure their children that Mommy will always come back to get them,” said McDaniel. “And give lots of attention and praise for doing a great job at school.”
Say goodbye and leave quickly.
While it may be tempting to get your child through the classroom door and leave undetected, that can impede the transition.
“I always encourage parents to say goodbye before leaving the classroom and not sneak out,” said McDaniel. “Sometimes this causes more stress to the children when they realize the parent is gone.”
Once you’ve executed the plan, make good on your promise to leave, even if your child is in tears.
“It's seems hard to believe, but the best thing the parent could do for the child is to leave so progress can be made,” said Schultheis. “Usually within 20 minutes, the child has consoled themselves and begins enjoying themselves.”
After saying goodbye, it’s okay to watch out of your child’s sight for a few minutes. But don’t reemerge if your child keeps crying. Instead, call your child’s caregiver later to see how he or she adjusted.
Schultheis and her team often text photos of kids having fun during the day to reassure parents that all is well. Mitchell does the same.
“Throughout the day, I text my parents to let them know how their child is doing,” said Mitchell. “My parents can come and go as they please and can call or text me anytime.”
Expect the unexpected.
Most children work through drop-off anxiety in a few weeks’ time. However, there are developmental stages and events in children’s lives that can cause anxieties to reappear. Schultheis sees spikes in drop-off anxieties after long holidays, like Christmas break. Illness, transitions between households, mom being at home with a sick sibling or grandparents visiting from out of town can all prompt difficult drop-offs, even for kids who usually bound into child care without looking back.
Developmentally, Mitchell sees babies start showing signs of separation anxiety around 7 to 8 months.
“This is a very normal pattern of human development,” she said. “It’s just the point at which they really begin to see there is a difference between familiar people and unfamiliar people.”
For all ages, parents should be patient with their child’s individual needs as they adjust to a new environment and occasionally revert back to separation anxieties.
“A child's brain is constantly changing,” said Schultheis. “As a child changes and grows to understand the world around them, new vulnerabilities will sneak in where they once felt safe. As parents, we should stay ready to have open conversations about feelings.”
Above all, McDaniel encourages open communication with child care providers to alleviate your own anxieties and ensure your child is happy and healthy.
“Quality providers will be open to your concerns and help establish the best plan that meets the needs of your child,” said McDaniel.