Friday, June 10, 2011

Mommy, Don't Go!

I wrote this article for a local mothering magazine, The Golden Gate Mother's Group.  It doesn't have my usual snarkiness, but it does have a lot of helpful information.
Leaving your child with a nanny, at daycare or at preschool can be hard for moms on many levels. Leaving your child while she is screaming, clutching your thigh and pleading with you not to go is excruciating. Although everyone says, “Don't worry.  They only cry for a few minutes," that does little to ease the anxiety and guilt of an apprehensive mother.
Photo courtesy of Karin Ascencio.
Separation anxiety can begin as early as seven or eight months of age, but it is usually most severe right after a baby’s first birthday, and can last throughout the first five to six years. Most babies and children overcome their anxiety after a few days, maybe a week, in a consistent childcare situation. Others will struggle longer, and many battle separation anxiety off and on over the course of their early childhood.
Richard King, a licensed marriage and family therapist working with Kidspace, suggests that a small dose of anxiety is healthy for a child. A little anxiety keeps children from jumping into unknown bodies of water, walking on balcony railings and talking to strangers. 
Separation anxiety, King maintains, must be managed at two ends—the parent and the child. More often than not, it is not just the child who is anxious. Children quickly pick up on the emotional cues of the primary caregiver, and if he or she is nervous about leaving their child at daycare, then the child may sense there is something scary about being left there. Parents must show confidence in themselves and in their child that they can handle the situation. Know that the situation you are leaving your child in is a safe and loving environment, and that your child will thrive once she calms down.
What can you do?
There are many ways parents can help alleviate a child’s separation anxiety. Here are a few of the most popular:
      Allow time for your child to get comfortable with the new nanny, daycare or preschool setting. When introducing a new nanny, spend an hour or so playing together before leaving. If a child is anxious about a new daycare or preschool, walk him around the school, introduce the new teachers and help him to feel at home in the environment.
      Brianne Collecchio, an early childhood education specialist, recommends giving your child control over as much as possible. Would you like an apple or a banana in your lunch? Would you like to wear the pink dress with the flowers, the pink dress with the butterflies, the pink dress with the ribbons or the pink dress with the paint stains? The more areas in her life the child has control over, the more she will be willing to accept the things she doesn't.  
      Bring a transitional object. Sometimes a little memento of mom can provide the child with the security he needs to feel safe in the new setting. King suggests a picture of the mother, or a treasured lovey. He has even had success with a child using a shirt slept in by the mother so that her scent was transferred to the garment.
      Help the child become engaged in the environment. Assist him in finding an activity that he really enjoys, painting, blocks, cars, or twirling in circles with a friend until dizzy, before saying good-bye.
      Consider drop-off rituals. Consistency is key for many children. Having an unwavering good-bye ritual can help the child to feel less anxious. Some routines include reading a story in the book corner or having the child wave good-bye from the window as you leave. 
      Finally, when leaving, always say goodbye—briefly and confidently. Many parents will try to sneak away without the child noticing. This can be very traumatic for the child when he realizes his mother left. It can also lead to the child fearing that his parent could disappear at any given time, without warning. Experts agree that it is best to say goodbye, quickly and just once (no coming back for seconds, thirds, and fourths when begged). By being confident, you let the child know that he has the ability to cope with his anxiety and that you know he is in a safe and loving place.
King also advises that parents prepare their child for the separation. Allow a lot of lead-time before leaving, even using a calendar to mark the days and times when she will go to school. At bedtime, try going over the next day’s events: “Tomorrow we are going to daycare. Mommy is going to drop you off. You will play, have lunch, take a nap, and play some more, then I will come right back!” Be positive and confident that the she will have a wonderful day without you, and don’t be afraid to tell her “I think you are okay and I know you can handle this.”
Bubble blowing is also a great activity to encourage relaxation for a child. King likes to make a game of it with his clients—who can blow the bigger bubble? Not only does it engage the children on a visual standpoint, it promotes deep breathing. With a little help, children can learn to apply this method to anxious situations.
King has also found family yoga to be very beneficial for older children, especially early elementary schoolers, Yoga can help kids concentrate on the elements going on in their own bodies. It loosens muscles and helps to calm the overall system.
Coping with separation anxiety in babies can have its own difficulties. Since too many words can be overwhelming to young ones, visual preparation is important.  This can include watching mommy get prepared for work, greeting the nanny at the door, and waving goodbye. Also, understand that this is a normal developmental stage, and as with all stages, it will pass.
When It’s Not Separation Anxiety
Some children may still be struggling with what appears to be separation anxiety at ages seven and eight. King cautions that these children might be coping with a deeper level of anxiety, maybe a fear of being left alone or a generalized anxiety disorder. While separation anxiety arises around transitions with mom, dad or the primary caregiver, generalized anxiety occurs in a variety of situations, and may manifest itself in physical behaviors such as fingernail picking, hand ringing or pulling out their own hair. These kids often have an extreme need to control the world around them. “Kids who are anxious try to exert control over their environment,” King said. 
Children with sensory issues may also appear to have separation anxiety. When entering a new environment, these children may cling to their parents and feel the need to retreat. However, the overwhelming stimulus (loud voices, throwing objects, running children) may be bombarding their senses.
Even though separation anxiety can be agonizing to both the child and the parent, it is a normal part of childhood. With consistent and confident behavior from the parent, separation anxiety can be eased for all involved.
Separation Anxiety or Manipulation?
When my own three-year-old daughter was battling this anxiety, I consulted another therapist at Kidspace. She mentioned that the behavior might not be anxiety, but manipulation and that there is a simple test for this. If you are able to buy your way out of a tantrum with a new toy, ice cream treat or a pony, then the kid is a master manipulator. I tested this theory with my own toddler. If she could manage two days without freaking out at drop-off, I would get her a new princess doll. She immediately calmed down and said, "I need Sleeping Beauty," before kissing me on the cheek and skipping off to the art table. The fits were completely extinguished and I was only down $12 and a trip to Target.
Books for Kids:
Children’s books can help to ease your child’s anxiety.  These are a few of my favorites:
Llama Llama Misses Mama, by Anna Dewdney: Llama Llama is starting preschool today, but he really misses his mama.  Read how Llama learned to love school, and his mama, too.
The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn:  Chester must join the other forest animals at school, but he wants to stay with his mama.  However, Chester’s mom has a special secret, the kissing hand, which helps her love stay with Chester all the night.
 I Love You All Day Long, by Francesca Rusackas.  Owen worries about going to school, but his mom promises “I love you when I’m with you, and I love you when we’re apart.”    
Mama, Don’t Go Out Tonight, by Sally Gardner.  Daisy does NOT want her mom to leave.  Her worry about what might happen leads Daisy, and the readers, on some wild fantasies.  This lighthearted story assures both Daisy and her mom that everything will be ok.  

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