Child Caring

Separation with an almost 2-year-old can be heart-wrenching

I have a wonderful almost two year old daughter and have been fortunate to stay home with her since she was born. My husband and I switch off when we have events and if we have a special occasion, we take her with us to a restaurant so she will learn how to act and enjoy the special time. If I need care, my mom will take care of her for a couple of hours and she is ok and will even tell me good-bye now. Here is our situation now.... Since crawling, she will not stay in her church class without mom and dad. She cries and asks for mommy and is not allowed to stay longer than 10 min until a teacher comes and gets us. We have been out of town some and had company in town so we have not gone for a long period of time lately. Ideas????

From: Anita, Atlanta, GA

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Dear Anita,

It's not unusual for 2-year-olds to become clingy; it is typically a phase that has to do with a new level of cognition that has kicked in. Imagine that she's now capable of having thoughts that might include some (or all) of this: "Whoa! Mom/dad isn't here and -- hold on -- I don't know where she is or what she's doing without me! When will she come back?" This is a phase, it will pass, but the duration and intensity can vary from child to child and can be exacerbated if there is out-of-the-ordinary stress or change at home. So that's the first thing to consider: is something happening at home -- financial woes, new baby, illness -- that is making you anxious? Our anxieties can rub off on our children.

Here are some ideas for coping:

1. When you are going to leave her, tell her about it a little in advance. Be as concrete and specific as possible: "I'm going to the store. Gram is going to stay with you. She will be here when you wake up from your nap. I'll be home when it's time for dinner."

2. Visit the classroom at the church together sometime when you aren't leaving her so that she can become more familiar with it. Play there together so that you can also give her a scenario about the classroom for the next time you leave her there: "Daddy and I are going to adult services at church. [That's important -- it tells her where you are and what you are doing and why she isn't with you.] You will stay with Miss Barbara in the classroom. Remember the toys they have there? There's the x, y and z. You can play with all of them and when the adult service is over, mom and dad will come back and get you."

3. Give her a trinket of yours before you leave her, something that might have your scent on it, a scarf or your picture" "If you feel lonesome, you can look at the picture to remember that we will be coming back after the service ends."

4. Talk with the teacher to let her know the steps you are taking and to ask her help in distracting her. If this is a volunteer classroom, it's possible there aren't enough adults to be there for her to give individual attention to a crying child or that they don't know how to handle a crying child. Surely other parents there have run into this. See what's helped for them. Is there a director of education to talk to as well? Maybe you can be a volunteer -- that might be another way to get your daughter more comfortable over time.

5. Don't give up on leaving her, always say goodbye to her, and try not to be tearful or apprehensive yourself. While it's ok to get there a little early to help her settle down, it's also important to make a clean break and not to draw it out unreasonably; that only makes it harder. Once you tell her you are leaving, leave, hopefully with the teacher instantly there to fill in for you.

6. Think of the ability to separate as a muscle a child needs to build; the more often it happens, the stronger she will get at it. With that in mind, it may be time to have more frequent small separations so that this i s not such an unusual event for her.

I remember very vividly having a similar problem myself when my son was 3 or so and I would take him to a toddler Sunday program. The teacher would literally have to peel him from around my legs as I turned to leave. It was awful! I would have given up altogether if it hadn't been for the experience of the teacher and her willingness and confidence in sending me on my way. (I was only gone an hour! What was going to happen?!) If you are not able to achieve that degree of confidence from this teacher, then maybe you need to give up on this particular classroom experience and you and your husband take turns going to church and you'll try again in six months to leave her. But don't give up on giving her small opportunities to have separations so she can learn to be successful at this.