Daycare separation woes

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  August 13, 2009 06:00 AM

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Any child can have difficulty separating, including the child who's never had a problem before.

Hi Barbara:

My son turns 3 in Sept. and he has been going to day care since he turned 2, since I went back to work full time. I know that he loves the teachers and the kids; I even have a strong affection for many of the teachers. They have been nothing but kind to us. Even so, drop offs have really never been easy (my child's a bit clingy to me!!) He usually cries and the teachers have to pry him off of me. He'll only really go smoothly to one teacher and most days, she is on break when I drop him off. I am certain that he is well taken care of there. Somedays I'll call the DC within 5 minutes and he is already great- playing and participating.

My dilemma is that along with this awful daily routine, I just found out that my work is relocating and I need to switch him to a different DC! I am completely devastated by this and desperately need some advice on how to make this transitions go as smoothly as possible. This scenerio has been truly heartbreaking for me. He's already very vocal and I am concerned that this might effect him long term. Please help!

From: Mendez, Hartford

Hi Mendez,

There are a number of things that can have long-last effects. Spanking comes to mind. The transition from one daycare to another would not be on my list, however.

I don’t mean for that to sound unsympathetic; I feel your pain, literally: at this age, my son was also a child whom teachers had to peel off me and, yes, heartbreaking was a word I'm sure I used to describe our separation. Plus, you begin to doubt yourself as a parent, and you can't help but wonder at the care your child is receiving.


Some children (my son, and it sounds like yours, too) have temperaments that make them more sensitive to separations. Others become temporarily more sensitive as they develop new levels of cognition: “Wait, mom is leaving?! Am I going to be OK without her?"

Consider this advice from pediatrician Harvey Karp (“The happiest toddler on the block”): “Repeat 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).

Here are two rules that might help as you leave your son: (1) Never leave without saying goodbye; and (2) Build a ritual around the separation. For me and my son, it was going to the arts and crafts table where he would pick up those child-sized scissors and begin to cut. I’m not sure what it was he loved about that – the action of the cutting or the finished product – but as a transition activity, it was magic.

In transitioning to a new DC, your child needs only a few days’ notice. Help him to mark the goodbye, for instance, bring in a camera and go around the space with him and take pictures of all his favorite things or people or whatever. That’s a kind of closure for him, even if he never looks at the photos once they are taken. Of course, enlist the teachers’ help in the goodbye process. Perhaps they have a goodbye ritual they have perfected.

Obviously, since your son has a history of separation difficulties, I’d look at the transition to a new center as a glass half full: You have the opportunity to start all over again, which means giving him more experience to exercise that separation muscle, and to learn from it. Start by letting the new teachers know he’s got this history and solicit their advice; in fact, that may be a decent litmus test for you in choosing a new center: How helpful are they about advising you?

Develop a new ritual that begins with the departure from the house and ends when you say goodbye at DC, and talk to him about it before. “First, Mom and David (use third person; kids seem to internalize this better) will say goodbye to the dog; then they'll say goodbye to a favorite toy; then they'll say goodbye the house.” You get the idea. Then: “When mom and David get to the center, we’ll say hello to the building; hello to the teacher, hello to the cubby. Then we’ll sit in the X corner (pick an activity he loves) and read one book together; color one picture together; build with blocks for 5 mins; then mom and David will say goodbye. Mom will wave to David….” Etc….etc. (By saying "one book," you are building in your limit; otherwise, you could get stuck there all day. You don't want to drag this on too long.)

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2 comments so far...
  1. Great advice Barbara. I also had to make the switch to a different daycare when my super-sensitive daughter was 3YO. I was in a panic. I stayed awake nights. I imagined she would become withdrawn, depressed. I hated myself for having to work and not be a stay at home mom. All this emotion (for me) in the weeks leading up to the switch.
    To help the transition, I took a week of vacation between daycare situations so she could be at home with me. During that week, we went to do "circle time" at the new daycare twice and hung out and played at the new daycare for an hour or so as well ... just so she could become familar with the place, the teachers and the kids.
    It worked like a dream. I was amazed at how well and easily she adapted (and this is a very sensitive kid who is still clingy and attached to this day ... and she's 8YO now!).
    Sure, she still cried at drop off but it was no worse than before at the old daycare. And she made friends more quickly than I would ever have imagined.
    Mendez, please take heart. We all try to make the best, most caring decisions possible for our kids ... you can only do your best. And we need to let our little people grow and surprise us with their ability to adapt.
    All the best to you!

    Posted by Jen August 14, 09 08:43 AM
  1. "I am COMPLETELY DEVASTATED by this and DESPERATELY need some advice on how to make this transitions go as smoothly as possible. This scenerio has been TRULY HEARTBREAKING for me."

    You are setting you and your son up for failure with this overly dramatic language and attitude. How will your son feel competent about handling things when you are overreacting so badly. If you handle it with a calm, "no big deal" approach, your son will take his cues from you. It's a daycare change, not leukemia!!!

    Posted by just_cos August 17, 09 04:44 PM
 
2 comments so far...
  1. Great advice Barbara. I also had to make the switch to a different daycare when my super-sensitive daughter was 3YO. I was in a panic. I stayed awake nights. I imagined she would become withdrawn, depressed. I hated myself for having to work and not be a stay at home mom. All this emotion (for me) in the weeks leading up to the switch.
    To help the transition, I took a week of vacation between daycare situations so she could be at home with me. During that week, we went to do "circle time" at the new daycare twice and hung out and played at the new daycare for an hour or so as well ... just so she could become familar with the place, the teachers and the kids.
    It worked like a dream. I was amazed at how well and easily she adapted (and this is a very sensitive kid who is still clingy and attached to this day ... and she's 8YO now!).
    Sure, she still cried at drop off but it was no worse than before at the old daycare. And she made friends more quickly than I would ever have imagined.
    Mendez, please take heart. We all try to make the best, most caring decisions possible for our kids ... you can only do your best. And we need to let our little people grow and surprise us with their ability to adapt.
    All the best to you!

    Posted by Jen August 14, 09 08:43 AM
  1. "I am COMPLETELY DEVASTATED by this and DESPERATELY need some advice on how to make this transitions go as smoothly as possible. This scenerio has been TRULY HEARTBREAKING for me."

    You are setting you and your son up for failure with this overly dramatic language and attitude. How will your son feel competent about handling things when you are overreacting so badly. If you handle it with a calm, "no big deal" approach, your son will take his cues from you. It's a daycare change, not leukemia!!!

    Posted by just_cos August 17, 09 04:44 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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