Separation Strategies

Young children dropped off at preschool by their parents often demonstrate various ways of handling initial anxiety about separation. In a recent observation, two little girls arriving at different times each carried a pocketbook. One of the girls also had a doll on her other arm. Although both of the children joined the group in a circle on the floor, seemingly without difficulty, it was clear in both instances that they were holding on protectively to their possessions.

Fascinating to watch was the way each in turn became interested in using the play materials available but were not willing to let go of their pocketbooks and for one child her doll. One girl solved the problem by first dangling her pocketbook over her arm and then tucking it under her leg. The other child had more of a problem trying to handle the doll and pocketbook while freeing her hands to use play materials in the way she wanted to. She struggled to keep both items under one arm while trying to free the other. As they moved on to other activities, the teacher was able to persuade her to leave the pocketbook on a shelf where she could see it but she held on tightly to the doll.

Children often bring things with them to help them make that transition from the security of home and parents to school or other new places. Holding on to those objects tells us that they are not quite ready to give themselves over to the new environment. Their behavior acts out that old Jimmy Durante song, “Did you ever get the feeling that you wanted to go while you also had the feeling that you wanted to stay?  We can see from their behavior when they’re ready to stay.

Parents often have those same moment of indecision when it comes to separating from their children. A group of mothers talked about their own strategies for dealing with feelings about separation – their own feelings as well as their children’s. In this new technological world, questions about the use of “face time” were raised. One mom said she had used it successfully with her older child but her eighteen-month-old became very upset about the image without the actual presence. Another mom said it had been successful as a way to maintain contact with her son’s father when he was away, but she has only used when she was the one present – never when she was away.

While the mothers were talking a child in another room began crying hysterically. One mother, recognizing it was her child went to get him from where he had been playing with an adult supervising. It turned out that she had been with him for a while in that room but then left, “sneaking out” so as not to upset him. She realized that it was his sudden awareness that she was gone that set off his upset. Thinking she would make things easier if he didn’t know she was leaving, it ended up making things worse.

Another mom compared this to her baby crying during the night. She discovered that rushing in to comfort her did not help the situation. She learned to listen to the cry in order to determine if she was really needed but it was hard for her not to respond immediately. The mothers agreed that it was painful to hear your child crying but in trying to avoid it, or prevent it from happening, one could create another problem.

As parents we can learn from children’s behavior that given the initial support they need, they devise their own strategies for dealing with things they find difficult