Separation issues start in infancy and continue into toddlerhood and beyond; they are never handled once and for all. The infant who has learned to sleep alone may well be- come the toddler who, because new fears arise, balks at going to bed and staying there. Even though a toddler copes very well with separation and independence during waking peri- ods, she may resist sleep because she must give up the control she has. Lack of control can be very scary be- cause it means that coping mecha- nisms don’t work in the same way as they do during waking periods. In addition, dreams, which can also cre- ate fear, enter in. Parents and child care teachers plus other profession- als who recognize this fact will be more understanding when children develop sleeping problems at home or react with difficulty to sleeping away from home.

Taking Separation in Small Steps It is easier for children if they first experience separation in small steps. Sleeping alone is one of these steps, though all families don’t agree with babies sleeping by themselves. Having a babysitter or being away from the person(s) they are attached to for short periods are other examples of steps of separation. Taking these steps may be questioned by some families who are not anxious for children to learn to separate from them at a young age; however, the reality of child care and other early education programs for very young children is that they will experience separation.

Saying good-bye can feel like a big loss to a child; with adult support, children learn to cope with separation

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With a succession of periods away from the parent(s), either at home or away from home, children come to trust that the attachment holds and that they will be reunited.

Be aware of the dangers of giving children more to cope with than they can han- dle. If parents feel a need to take an extended vacation away from their child, they should realize the possible effects of a prolonged separation during the toddler pe- riod. Obviously, if the child has someone else he or she is attached to, the effects of such a separation won’t be as serious as if the only person or two people in the world the child feels close to suddenly disappear for a few weeks. Such an interrup- tion in attachment can be devastating to the child’s sense of trust.

Some sudden and prolonged separations can’t be helped, of course. If the child must undergo an extensive hospitalization, he or she will get through it better if par- ents stay at the hospital with him or her or at least visit frequently. Visiting isn’t the perfect solution because of the continual anguish of painful good-byes; it’s better if a parent can stay with the child. When this isn’t possible, visiting is preferable to nothing, even though parents may be tempted to cut down on their visits because of the pain their departures cause the child. But children who feel deserted can ex- perience depression, according to the research of John Bowlby (2000a, 2000b), who studied the effects of long-term separations in childhood.

A different kind of separation has impacted many families in the past few years—that of military duty overseas in war zones. Separation during war is a major issue with accompanying doubts, fears, and loneliness. The reunion when the miss- ing parent comes back may turn from joy to stress as the returning parent tries to fit in again to the family that has learned to get along with one parent. The child or chil- dren may be in a different stage of development from when the returning parent last saw them. The family may be quite distant from relatives or friends due to the fre- quent relocations military families experience. This is a case when support systems and special intervention may be needed to help families build on their strengths (Williams & Rose, 2007).

Entering Child Care When a separation such as going into child care is on the horizon, it’s best to pre- pare the child (Balaban, 2006; McCracken, 1986). Imagine being the child of a mother who has been with you day and night for the first two years. Your mother suddenly decides to go back to work, and one day she drives you to a strange place and leaves you there for the entire day. How would you feel?

It’s far gentler if families can visit beforehand and can keep the first experiences short so the child gets to know the place and the people. By being left for only an hour or so in the beginning, the child learns that the parent will return after a time. If the day is gradually lengthened, the child gets used to it and it’s not such a shock.

Helping Children Adjust. Some children walk right into child care without batting an eye. They’re so intrigued with the new setting that they forget their fears. Other children cling and suffer greatly. In this case, it helps if the parent can let the child make the decision to separate rather than peeling him off and walking out the door, leaving him screaming.

One program has a room for the use of parents whose children hesitate to leave them. The doorway just beyond the “separation room” is open and is filled with the sounds and sights of children playing, which serve to entice the child to leave

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Supporting Families with Autonomy-Seeking Youngsters 65

the parent’s side. Parents are asked to be patient about the separation pro- cess, and they’re given some help and support to make it a healthy coping experience for both parent and child. Of course, everyone doesn’t have the option of a slow departure. However, if this approach is proposed and the program promotes it, more families might find ways to ease their children into the new situations and relieve some of the separation upset.

When the good-byes come, it helps to make things predictable. Some parents prefer to sneak out and miss the protests from the child. When they do that— leave the child playing without saying good-bye—trust issues arise. Instead of feeling secure, the child is left with the feeling of never knowing when the parent is there or gone. How can the child feel any power in the world if there’s no way to predict what will happen? Saying good-bye may bring tears and protests, but it’s the open, honest way of helping the child understand what’s happening. It may be hard to explain that to families, but it’s worth it.

Accepting Feelings. When strong feelings are a part of the good-byes, it’s impor- tant to acknowledge and accept the feelings rather than distracting the child from them. If the early educator has leftover issues of separation and loss from child- hood, it may be very hard for him or her to deal with the child’s feelings. It’s just too painful. If that’s your problem, it’s important to recognize how your own unre- solved issues may be influencing your ability to deal with a child in the throes of a separation. Separation experiences remain with us—especially the unexpressed and unresolved feelings. Bringing these to awareness can help us cope with them in ways that are healthy for us and allow us to be available to the child who needs us.

Many adults who find separation painful because of their own experi- ences do whatever they can to distract the child and not acknowledge what he or she is feeling. Far better to put the child’s feelings into words: “You’re upset that your mother left you.” It’s also important to emit a sense of con- fidence that the child will be all right and that she will be reunited with the loved one. Don’t go overboard, however. If you constantly reassure the child, she’ll begin to wonder whether you’re reassuring yourself because what you’re saying is not true. Better to be empathetic about the feelings and reassuring without discounting them. Your confidence and empathetic acceptance of the child’s feelings not only help the child, but give the parent some assurance as well that you know what you are doing and everything will be okay.

It’s also important to recognize that parents may have strong feelings about separation. It may hurt to leave their child with someone else. They may feel guilty. Some parents prolong good-byes because of their own feelings of ambiguity. These slow departures can be torture to everyone, especially if the child has shown willingness to be left but has second thoughts because of the way the parent is dragging his or her feet. In these situations, teachers sometimes have to help parents see how the child’s feelings are affected by their reluctance to leave. Teachers need to support parents and accept their feelings in the same way they do with children, without supporting detrimental actions such as agonizing, lingering departures.

Helping Children Cope. Some children are comforted and reassured by what’s called a transition object—some kind of comfort device, such as a stuffed animal or a favorite blanket. Having something from home that they’re attached to provides a link between home and child care. Leaving something of the parents at child care

Watch this video to see children and families enter preschool and then say good-bye. What strategies do you see the teachers using to support families during the good-bye transition?

When strong feelings are a part of the good- byes, it’s important to acknowledge and accept the feelings rather than distracting the child from them.

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can help, too. One child was comforted when his mother left her purse (she carried her wallet with her) because he figured if she forgot to come back for him, she’d at least remember her purse. He knew how important it was to her. Many parents are already aware of the value of transition objects to help separation—though they may not call them that.

Providing something to do that’s compelling and interesting is a good technique for helping the child cope with feelings of loss. Often the child will migrate to an inter- esting activity or a friendly person after the pain of arrival is beginning to pass. Don’t hurry this process of moving to an activity or other person, however. Give time for the feelings. There’s a fine line between helping children cope with feelings and distracting them from those feelings. It is important that the feelings be accepted and acknowl- edged. It may also help the parent to know what you are doing and how you are using particular activities or play objects to help the child make the transition. It’s always good to explain the problem with distraction, because some families may have never thought about the problem of moving a child away from what he or she is feeling.

In addition, allow the child to play out the feelings. Often you can see children over among the dolls or out in the sandbox, working through what’s on their minds. This is a healthy way to deal with feelings that may be hard to express directly in words. You can also point out to parents what’s happening—or listen while they point it out to you. The parent may have a greater understanding of the experience the child is playing out than you do. See Figure 3.3 for more tips on helping children cope with separation.

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