Times are changing. This isn’t to say we aren’t in the middle of a pandemic, it’s just to note that how the pandemic has structured our lives- particularly our children’s lives, is now changing. Families are engaging in activities that resemble pre-pandemic socializing. For some, children are returning to school, babysitters are becoming an option…. perhaps most notably, parents now have the possibility of being separated from their children. Hallelujah. And hello separation anxiety.Especially for toddlers who have spent half of their lives under pandemic restrictions.
So let’s talk a little bit more about separation anxiety and the early childhood experience.
Separation anxiety is a natural human response to the absence of a caregiver. Through a diversity of temperaments children experience separation to varying degrees.
Separation anxiety is strengthening several different capacities:
-Emotional regulation and emotional vocabulary -Sequencing skills that emerge into both mathematic and literacy development.
Sequencing and Emotional regulation are what transforms separation anxiety into self-confidence and autonomy.
Dealing with separation anxiety as a parent and teacher, I have learned that my greatest resource is supporting emotional regulation and sequencing. I avoid distraction unless it is apart of a greater plan to support the child. I have found that distraction of these emotions does not support self-confidence and autonomy and it does not have long term success. But I have in my own process of learning innocently tried to distract a child in hopes that we can all forget this whole separation anxiety thing never really happened. You live, you learn.. and 🤷🏻♀️
Supporting Emotional Regulation and Emotional Vocabulary Through Separation Anxiety
1. Affirm and define: Explain how you feel when you leave. Describe your emotions and how you handle them. Describe the steps you take after leaving : “when I leave your school I walk through this hallway and I stop to say bye to Mrs. So and So at the front desk. I get in my car and then I drive to work. When I leave I feel sad, and I miss you a lot. I think about what will happen. I leave school, drive to work, finish my work, drive back to school and get you at 3:00oclock and then we will play with your legos and cook dinner.” This doesn’t have to be in one conversation! Focusing on sharing these details will guide you on when and how. When sharing how you feel provide different words and descriptions of your feelings.
2. Strengthen Sequencing: Your day is a story, the more your child can outline the story of their day- and tell it, the safer they feel and the easier it is to manage the natural feelings of separation anxiety. So- practice telling the story of yours and your child’s day! And have fun doing it!
–Create a handmade book that details the aspects of your child’s day- and fills them in on some of the visual aspects of your day too! Take pictures of the school and your work to help fill in your story.
-Play pretend! Pretend like you are going to school and work and act out the small details of what happens at drop off.
I am dealing with my own two year olds separation anxiety right now. And after living half of her life under pandemic social restrictions I hope to be as supportive as possible of her self-confidence with entering a school or school-like setting. Below I will share how I am going about it- I hope it inspires you to create something unique for your family and kiddo.
1. I got a back pack with Mickey (one of her favorites) and began the process of explaining its connection to school. We played pretend with it a lot, mirroring shows like Daniel Tiger. When she is not with me she has this backpack which has water, snack, stuffed animal and a book. We put it away at home in a cubby, or special spot, similar to school. The backpack is a prop for us to pretend school, but it also serves as a security piece while at school. And it can hopefully trigger memories of our play and discussions about school.
2. I walked my daughter through my path of leaving her in Sunday School and talked about what I do when I leave (I have done this several times)
3. I looked for fun aspects of the sign in process my daughter and I could play with later. One of which is the printer sticker of her name. We saved it, pretend to put it on when we get to Sunday school, pretend driving to Sunday school.
4. Once my daughter brought home something she did from Sunday School I hung it on the fridge to consistently reopen conversation about going to Sunday school.
5. In discussing the sequence of Sunday school I always add something very memorable at the end of school that will scaffold her ability to sequence the events. Right now I have been doing a bike ride or scooter ride. So her story is, Breakfast, go to Sunday school, walk around the grounds, go to the classroom, mom walks to the big building, comes back to get you, and then we RIDE SCOOTERS. You really want to have a killer ending. And if their isn’t time for something like a scooter ride make anything fun. A surprise in the car (juice box, stickers, tiny frog you found in Easter stuff, a race, a tickle fight- You got this!
Here is a picture of NJ’s little helpers for learning about school and managing her feelings