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Comforting rituals can lessen trauma of day-care drop-off

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / March 24, 2005

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Blinking back tears herself, Jennifer Weber hands her sobbing 2-year-old to day-care director Linda Valentin, says a final goodbye to him, and walks out of the toddler room at Arc-en-Ciel in Jamaica Plain. She takes a few deep breaths, shakes her head as if to clear it, and makes her way to Valentin's office, where she spends the next 20 minutes watching Daniel on a TV monitor.

Even before she gets there, Daniel has stopped crying. Snuggled tightly against Valentin, he pops his thumb in his mouth and barely moves for 10 minutes. It's as if he's recharging. When he hears his friend Ruby laugh, though, he looks her way, and when his teacher, Miss Barbara, invites some children to play, he watches with interest. Finally Valentin sits at the Play Doh table with Daniel on her lap. It's not long before Daniel slides onto his own chair, asks for the green Play Doh, and begins to play.

What makes a happy, well-adjusted toddler turn into such a sad sack?

At the top of the list is any dramatic change at home. Daniel has two: twin sisters Lily and Molly.

"He's entitled," says Valentin, with just a hint of understatement. Valentin also knows what parents go through: "a mixture of guilt, ambivalence, worry, and heartbreak."

That would describe Daniel's father, Laurence Bailen, in the two weeks after the twins' birth when he was doing the drop-off. "One day, he grabbed my legs, screaming and crying, `Daddy, don't go! Daddy don't go!' It was awful. I got in the car and cried," he says.

Early-childhood researcher Elisa Klein of the University of Maryland is sympathetic. "At some point, you begin to feel incompetent as a parent," she says. You may also begin to wonder about your day care. Is this a bad place?

Assuming you've done a good job of choosing the day care and that your child has been happy until now, the answer is probably no. But changes that discombobulate can happen at day care as well as home, and you may not even know about it, either because it's so subtle a change (a best buddy is out sick or has been playing with someone else) or because your toddler doesn't have the language to tell you about it. "Don't just wonder. Ask the staff," urges early-childhood educator Jerlean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the National Association of the Education of Young Children.

Whether your child is 3 months or 3 years old, there are two golden rules for drop-off:

Always say goodbye. You may think it's easier for her if you get her involved in an activity and sneak off. Not so, says early-childhood educator Jane Rosenberg, director of the Pacific Oaks Children's School at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena. The experience of not knowing where you went will make him more clingy, not less, and not necessarily only at separations. "This is about building trust," says Rosenberg. "He'll be afraid to get involved because if he turns his eyes for a minute, you could disappear."

Don't drag it out. It's fine to stay as long as you need to to get your child comfortable, "but once you say you're going, go," says Daniel. "When a child begs, `Don't go, don't go,' and you don't, it makes her more and more frantic: `I said don't go and she didn't. Will it work next time, too?"' Better to let her know from the start what your plan is ("I'll read a story, and then I'll go.") and hold to it.

Rituals make goodbye easier. Klein's daughter Sarah, now 7, had a meltdown almost every day for a year when she was 3. Then one day, after they kissed and said goodbye, Sarah counted out loud the five steps it took for Klein to be out the door. Charmed, Klein turned and waved. "Five steps" became their daily routine. When Sarah's father did the drop-off, they had a different ritual: Sarah would push him out the door. "It was a way for her to feel she had control," Klein says.

The more anxious and sensitive a child is, the more concrete coping skills they need.

The ritual might begin at home, when you check the backpack to make sure a favorite blankie, stuffed animal, or family photo is there. "Even if she never uses it, knowing it's there can be reassurance enough," she says. Young children don't have a sense of time, but they do understand sequence: "After I drop you off, I'm going to my office. I'll come back to pick you up after afternoon nap." Some parents may think this is too much talking about something that makes a child sad. "I've seen kids go to their cubby and kiss the family photo," says Rosenberg. "That's a child who is able to comfort herself. It's a skill that will last a lifetime."

When day-care drop-off difficulty comes out of the blue, it's likely fueled by development:

4 to 10 months: By now, a baby can tell the difference between parents and other primary caregivers, which is why the sudden aversion to new people is called stranger anxiety. It's also why consistency is so important. "Expect the same person to greet your baby every morning," says Daniel.

With that, why should there be drop-off difficulty? "It's their way of registering that they know the difference between you," she says: "`I like this person, too, but Mom? Dad? You're first on my list."'

11 to 24 months: Just when you thought things had calmed down, a second apparent wave of stranger anxiety may surface, making drop-off difficult again. More accurately, it's a newfound cognitive awareness that he's an independent being. "Think of it this way," says Daniel: "You're climbing a mountain. Without realizing it, you've out-climbed your guide; you look around and he's not there. You panic: `Am I OK on my own?"' Allow for more time in your drop-off routine so that you don't have to rush when you get there.

2 to 3 years: A child has gone off to day care 100 times with no difficulty. Now, it's a struggle. Attribute it to another change in cognition, the ability to make comparisons. "The toddler realizes that just about everyone else is bigger than he is," says UCLA pediatrician Harvey Karp. Feeling vulnerable, he's susceptible to anything that upsets his emotional balance, from a new baby, to Mom and Dad arguing. The good news is that this is also when they are involved in magical thinking, so a transitional object can work wonders: "Whenever you miss me, you can touch/smell/look at this and it will make you feel better."

Karp also recommends repeating back to your toddler what he is saying to you, not in an adult voice but by matching his tone and emotion: "You're telling me, `No Mommy! No Mommy! Don't go Mommy, don't go!' Repeat it eight or 10 times," says Karp. "Then present your `but': `But you love it at day care, and Mommy will be back after afternoon snack."' Karp is author of the book and DVD, "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" (Bantam).

Preschoolers: Unhappiness at separation suddenly may start to feel more manipulative than genuine: She left something at home or in the car and can't live without it. Daniel tells parents to think of it as a child trying to find his place in the world and to have control over it. Meet her requirements when you can; when you can't, take something out of your pocket or off your body (a scarf or pin) to leave with her. You can also go over a checklist together before you leave home: "Let's see, do we have your blankie?" The more choices she has elsewhere in her life ("Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue one?"), the easier drop-off is likely to go.

Daniel's parents have coined a term for what they think his drop-off difficulty is about: the FOMS, for Fear of Missing Something. They probably hit the nail on the head.

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