Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for babies and young children. During the COVID pandemic, separation anxiety has become even more prevalent due to children having less opportunities to practice separating from parents and socializing with other children. Luckily, kids are resilient and can learn coping skills more easily the younger they are.
Separation anxiety isn’t just difficult for the child! For many parents it can be extremely anxiety provoking, heart wrenching or even frustrating to observe your child feeling unsettled. Practicing goodbye rituals together can help both child and parent navigate separation.
5 steps to a healthy first day drop-off:
1. Plan your goodbye ritual: Create and practice a special goodbye ritual with your child: have a special handshake, goodbye song, and/or motto (e.g. “love you to the moon and back” while making a heart with your hands, Daniel Tiger song “Grown-ups come back!”). Practice the goodbye ritual during calm and connected moments.
2. Practice through play and reading: Have special one-on-one play time with your child (lasting about 10-15 minutes) to practice the special goodbye ritual through pretend play (using puppets and/or stuffed animals) and read together these books that focus on your child’s feelings during separation:
3. Prepare them with as much information as you can: Visit the classroom, talk about what snacks they will have, what activities they will do, take a picture of the teacher to look at throughout the week. Have a playdate with a classmate before school starts so they have a familiar friend. Do practice runs: walk/drive by the school and talk through the special goodbye ritual together.
4. Include a security item/transitional object: Introduce or include a security item that stays with your child during the separation to help them self-regulate. Some ideas: a small secret picture, a special keychain, a bracelet and/or a lovey.
5. Plan for a special activity or treat after the first day: Plan to pick your child up from school yourself on the first day (if you are able) and plan a special activity or treat for the end of the day. Despite everyone’s best efforts, your child will still have difficult moments separating, that is normal and they still deserve something special for being so brave.
6 steps to set yourself up for success during drop-off:
1. Set the tone and show excitement: Young children pick up on our energy and emotions! Hype it up and describe the fun your child is going to have while you are separated. Exude confidence that they can do this, even if you yourself are feeling nervous.
2. Set them up for success: Greet the people in the room and engage in the activities with your child, finding the delicate balance between not rushing the separation but also not wavering too long.
3. Validate your child’s feelings: Let your child know that it is okay that they are feeling sad/scared/worried.
4. Goodbye ritual: Get down on your child’s eye level and implement the special goodbye plan/ritual (e.g. song, handshake, or motto).
5. Say goodbye confidently: Don’t sneak out, it will make them more anxious in the future.
6. Treat yourself: You did it! Now go get yourself a coffee or a treat for a job well done.