When your toddler wails from the arms of her preschool teacher or babysitter as you head for the door, you may think that either she or you have failed in some way. She has “failed” by not cheerfully waving goodbye, or you’ve “failed” by making her cry—or having to leave her at all. Once alone, you feel your own eyes fill with tears.
But parents and their children are intimately connected, so when it comes to separating, there is no success or failure. It’s an emotional process that takes time and care, and crying is a sign of how fiercely your child loves you. There are ways to navigate this and build trust in your child and faith in yourself as a parent.
The toddler’s view
Toddlers live in the moment. It may seem obvious that a morning spent at a nursery school full of toys will be fun, but your toddler may see it differently. “A toddler’s immediate experience is I’m letting you go and I don’t know if you’re coming back,” says Robin Goldstein, Ph.D., a child development specialist, an instructor at Johns Hopkins and the author of The Parenting Bible. “Until toddlers reach that cognitive maturity to put it together that Mommy leaves and then Mommy comes back, they will be upset and cling to your legs,” she says.
Explanations of what you’re doing might not register with your child, but reassurance can help. “Toddlers recognize your soothing tone,” says Goldstein. “They’ve learned to trust it.” In order to convey confi dence rather than worry, you must have complete trust in the caretaker or nursery school where you’re leaving your child.
“You want to tell your child ‘You will be fine here,’” says Anne Schiller, a preschool teacher with more than 30 years of experience in Pasadena, Calif. “To say this convincingly, you have to believe it to be true.” Spend time at the preschool you’ve chosen; meet and get to know the teachers. Your ease with the teachers will help your child feel comfortable.
Any abrupt change in your toddler’s daily life will not go over well. A sequence of small steps will help your child adjust with less trauma. “Choose a preschool where separation is paid attention to in a careful way,” advises Schiller.
Some invite parents to stay with the toddler for as long as they wish for the first week. The next step is to have the parent walk away from the toddler to another area of the school—say, to get a cup of coffee—and then return, while your child forms attachments to teachers and other children. After doing this a few times over several days, the parent might leave the school for half an hour, then return.
Each time the tot and parent separate, a teacher can distract or reassure the toddler. These mini-steps help a child get used to seeing that you do return. You can do this with any caretaker. Ellie Laks of Santa Clarita, Calif., mother to 21⁄2-year-old daughter Cheyanne, made an arrangement with her friend Kelly to look after each other’s small children. “First, I took Cheyanne and my other two children to Kelly’s house and we all hung out there for the day.
A few days later, Kelly and her kids came to our house for the day. A few days after that, we all went to the park, and I had Kelly take Cheyanne far off, over to the swings. I was still there, but not close by. Finally, we all went to the park and I left for half an hour while Kelly looked after the kids.” Taking the time to do this helped Cheyanne feel comfortable with Kelly.