When Your Child Hesitates to Separate
-Betsy O’Neill-Sheehan, MSW
Sometimes it’s the first day. Sometimes it’s two weeks in. Sometimes it’s upon the return from a prolonged break. School starts and you wonder in your parental heart, “How will my child react this time?” So you pack the lunch, set the backpack by the door, and review the plan. “We will do (A,B,C, components of said plan) then a hug and a kiss and a nice goodbye.
Day 1 – Step A: You get through Step A with excitement. Your child is so excited to wear their new dino-princess-pirate-unicorn gear and willingly leaps through the getting ready phase. You are a parenting wonder.
Day 1 – Step B: Breakfast: Your child is not so hungry. You get it. They have a combination of nervous excitement that has shut down their digestive system. The three bites your child manages are fine. You maintain that smooth, “we’ve got this” demeanor. You don’t touch any of your food either. Butterflies in tummies are contagious.
Day 1 – Step C: The Bus Stop: Keeping with the smooth roll you are on, you chat your child up about their great new backpack, the awesome outfit they have on. Oh, don’t forget to snap a picture! Let’s walk out to the bus… pause… uh oh… the eyes. You know those eyes. They are the eyes that have realized that this transition is really happening. Then the lips turn down. You don’t have time to react before… the waterworks! Not the waterworks! You open your arms wide and give that big hug wondering why they have to go through this anyway!?! They don’t want to let go, you don’t want to let go. But after a moment you peel your child away to offer words of encouragement. “It will be ok. You love them no matter where in the universe either of you are.” You try to show confidence, but they can see in your eyes that you are torn up inside.
The bus goes by. Missed it. That’s ok. You’ll try another way. You will take them in today. That’s what carline is for.
It’s not any easier. Every step you take to help make this transition easier, seems to make it worse. As you walk away from your crying child, sometimes screaming, sometimes acting in a way they wouldn’t usually behave, you wonder, “Where did I go wrong?”
This counselor’s answer: you did nothing wrong. Please don’t add guilt to the pit you now feel in your stomach. That pit is not a source of inspiration or answers. Try not to feed it with unhelpful thoughts.
LET’S MAKE A PLAN
In my experience, I have seen these transitions a multitude of times with children of various backgrounds and ages. And I have seen them all work through it with a team of their families and their school supports. Here are the ways that they get there:
- Keep Your Head Up (and other such adages that imply that you step through until you have confidence in what you are doing): Moments after a child separates from their parent or other person of attachment, they begin to calm. I have sent many parents pictures of their child, happily participating in class, with the clock behind them showing a time only minutes after they’ve left. You will get there. Though there may be setbacks at times, your confidence that your child will learn this will build their belief that they will, as well.
- Remember the Goodbye is the Hardest Part: I ask students to measure how big their feelings get at different stages of the farewell transitions. Without fail, they feel their biggest, most difficult to manage feelings at the approach and the moment of separation. Children who feel anxiety seek surety and comfort. Their parents and loved ones are the primary sources for those two things, especially when they are stepping into a new environment. The children also consistently report improvement in their feelings once the separation occurs and is definite. When parents understand that their child actually feels better once the goodbye process is over, it makes it that much easier to stick to the plan.
- Build a Goodbye Routine: With your child, build a recipe for a “nice goodbye.” Explain that we all love each other and want each other to have a good day. When we say, “goodbye,” we want to show each other that love and feel good about starting our days. What will that look like for your family? What will you say? How many hugs? How many kisses? Have this conversation at a time of the day when your child is actively available to talk about it (not 10 minutes before the transition.) Then stick to the plan. Your child will learn what your family “goodbye” will look like. The consistency will help add predictability and diminish chances for “one more last hug.” When my own pre-schooler struggled at “goodbye”, I realized that a bell would ring in the building at just about the time I needed to go. I would then say, “Oh, that’s the bell. I have to go. I love you wherever I go, and you love me wherever you go. (kiss, hug) I love you. Goodbye.”
- Expect it: Difficult transitions usually pop up during “firsts” when your child feels as though they are stepping into the unknown. Other common occasions for transitions to become difficult: the first day back after a long weekend or vacation, the first days back after prolonged illness, the first days back after … (see the pattern here?!)
- Grow Successes: There is not an “on” or “off” switch for anxiety. Success in transitions is something to work toward. Measure in small steps or increments. Did your child demonstrate improvements in behavior? Did they cry for less time? Did they get on the bus? Did they stick to the recipe for the goodbye? Reflect on their success with them. Show them you believe in them and their abilities.
- Ask for Help: Talk to your child’s teacher, counselor, and/or principal. This may be your first experience with these transitions, but it is not theirs. Showing your confidence in your child’s caretakers will inspire their confidence in them, as well.
Day 23 – Step A: The dino-princess-pirate-unicorn gear is in the wash. Child willingly and flexibly goes with the Plan B outfit of superhero-narwhal.
Day 23 – Step B – Superhero narwhals eat all their waffles.
Day 23 – Step C – Superhero narwhal reminds you the recipe for a nice goodbye is 2 hugs, 1 kiss, and a quiet whisper, “I love you” before heading up onto the bus. There have been many steps between Day 1 and now. You give a big smile and wave to the narwhal in the second seat with the slightly sad eyes. You all did it. You are doing it. You can do it again.
Try this beautiful children’s book read aloud with your child to help the discussion about goodbye transitions:
Penn, Audrey, Ruth E. Harper, Nancy M. Leak, and Heather Koren. The Kissing Hand. , 2007.
Wilson, R. R., & Lyons, L. (2013). Anxious kids, anxious parents: 7 ways to stop the worry cycle and raise courageous & independent children. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.