Preschool Separation

When it comes to parenting books, Betsy Brown Braun is a must-read. Her extensive expertise means that she doesn't just know her stuff, she knows how to best explain it to you. "Just Tell Me What To Say" does just that, covering many typical tricky situations you'll run into with your child. What I love about Betsy is that she's all about communicating genuinely with children and treating them with respect.

I was a mess when my son was starting school. I was so anxious and felt so lucky that I could reach out to Betsy for advice that I just had to share her words with everyone. Her advice is below.

Starting preschool is a big deal! I’m just not sure for whom it is the bigger deal — the parent or the child?! I do know for sure that both players need to be considered.

For his first two and a half or three years, your baby and his well-being have been a 24-hours-a day obsession. Now, as your child begins preschool, you are expected to loosen the reins, trust a brand new caregiver -- a stranger really -- and just wave goodbye. That’s a tall order for any parent. It tugs at your heart strings.

When you get on an airplane, the pilot reminds you that in the event of an emergency, first you put on your own oxygen mask, and then you put the mask on your child. This procedure is a metaphor for how parents must handle all kinds of situations: Take care of your own feelings first. Why? Because parents leak! Children take their cues about how to feel and respond from you. If you are worried, scared, skeptical, your child will feel it too. This includes the preschool separation process. It is as much about you as it is about your child.

For the toddler (who hasn’t been in daycare since early on) separation means letting go of the significant other in his life. With little experience at separating and reuniting with loved ones, the process can be particularly distressing. We do know, however, that a child’s reluctance to leave a beloved adult is actually a good sign that meaningful attachments have developed. The capacity for such relationships is necessary for the child’s healthy emotional development. That’s the good news. The bad news? Preschool separation can be really painful…for the child and the parent.

I can promise that each child will handle the preschool separation in his own way, based on his temperament, his relationship with you, and his experience with previous separations, and the messages you are giving him. There is no template.

Keeping these realities in mind, I offer the following tips for easing the preschool separation.

Get familiar. Distress can be minimized if you help your child to become familiar with the new surroundings and people therein before he is left there. This familiarization takes place over several days (sometimes weeks).

Spend time with your child. Make sure your child is getting enough of you during his regular day, but not too much. Practice being together and apart while you are at home. But know that it is easier for your child to be left at home than it is to be taken somewhere and left.

Take extra time. Hurrying is the enemy! Admonishing that you are going to be late will often actually sabotage your goal of getting to school (or anywhere) on time. Slow down. Allow ten extra minutes to be with your child…getting ready, on the way to the car, even getting in and out of the car.

Have a gradual separation plan which is supported by the school. Drop and run is never a good idea. Find out what your school expects, and then develop your particular plan. Most first time separations at a school will take from one week to three, some even more. The plan should include sitting in the classroom (not interacting with your child as he builds relationship with his teacher) and not leaving, leaving for short periods of time, lengthening your time out of the room, and finally leaving. When you leave the room at first, be sure to leave your purse or car keys on your chair indicating to your child that you will be back.

Never sneak out. Whenever you leave, but especially at school, always tell your child goodbye, quickly and calmly (without emotion), and leave. At school, say your goodbye, let the teacher know you are leaving, and do not look back! When you return, greet your child calmly with “Mommy came back! Mommy always comes back.” Do this every single time you leave and return. This builds the trust which enables the child to let go.

Do not linger. Even when the child yells, “But mommy, wait.” Smile, wave, blow a kiss and leave. One more hug does not work!

Discuss the plan and do it. Children always do better when they are told, “Here’s the plan.” After separation has begun, let the child know you are going to read him a book at school, then you are going to sit in a chair, then you are going to make some phone calls in your car, go the market and buy cheese, and then you’ll be back…or whatever.

You are the boss. During separation, do what you know your child needs and not what he wants.

They’re fine! Most children get over their sadness very quickly, within a few minutes of your leaving. You may not be. Once you get to your car, you may cry your eyes out!

Avoid additional stress. During the separation time avoid changes. No new nannies, no grandparents visiting, no parents going out of town, no new beds, etc.. Keep everything the same.

Expect behavioral changes. It would not be uncommon for parents to experience any of the following from their child during the time of separation: clinginess, night wakefulness, nightmares, whining, easy provocation to tears, sibling issues, regressive behaviors. These will be short lived.

It takes 6 weeks. After the separation, it usually takes 6 weeks for things to fall into place, for the child and for you to feel comfortable and at home. I promise! If after that amount of time, your child is still experiencing great distress, you may need to consult with you school director, your pediatrician, or a mental health professional.

Life is full of separations. The one associated with the start of preschool just happens to be a biggie. But there will be plenty more. The way you handle this first separation will certainly set the tone for all the rest to come.

Betsy Brown Braun, is the bestselling author of the award winning "Just Tell Me What to Say" (Harper Collins 2008), and "You’re Not the Boss of Me" (HarperCollins, 2010), a best seller already in its fourth printing. A renowned child development and behavior specialist, popular parent educator, and mother of adult triplets, she is a frequent speaker at educational and business conferences, has been a guest expert on Today, the Early Show, Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight, Rachel Ray, and NPR, and has been cited in USA Today, the New York Times, Family Circle, Parents, Parenting, Woman’s Day, Real Simple, and Good Housekeeping among countless other publications and websites. As the founder of Parenting Pathways, Inc., Betsy offers private consulting and parenting seminars as well. Betsy and her husband Ray Braun are parents of adult triplets and grandparents of four, so far.

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