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A Case of Separation

by Dawn Marie Barhyte

The experience of separation, even a brief one, is important for both parents and child.

Certainly during the first years the sorrow of parting is challenging and can stir intense emotions. Separations start early and continue through life, from the very first time a baby crawls away from his mother’s sight, first time with a sitter, or a visit with grandparents to the beginning of preschool and kindergarten. Eventually we come to learn that separation is a part of life. The young child however has limited experiences. Cognitive and emotional abilities are just developing so separations seem unending. Saying goodbye is tough-it arouses a mixed bag of feelings from sadness, to grief and anger. In fact children build a sense of self through these series of separations and rejoinings. Indeed separation is a process not a problem. This process is integral to maturation and moving on in life. As parents we can meet the expressions of separation anxiety when they surface with understanding and concern. It’s vital we try to facilitate the process, offer support and recognize that it’s a normal childhood fear so that children can develop a sense of control and self-esteem and come to know they can cope with uncomfortable feelings.

Separation anxiety is an emotion we assume is negative, but in order to have this feeling in the first place we need to feel we have something to lose. This is a healthy response to a threat of being left . The young child is saying, “I love you”

“I’m attached”, “Don’t leave me”. This bittersweet expression is healthy and necessary even though it causes pain. When a child enters school she faces her fears in a new and unfamiliar setting. Children have all kinds of feelings about leaving the safety of their families and entering a group of unfamiliar people. Some may be stoic, others may weep and others may kick and scream. It’s all within the normal range. It’s hard to predict what type of reaction your young child will have. If it’s the first time your child is away from home be prepared to spend some time offering solace and acknowledging that although saying goodbye is hard we always come back.

We can help lessen the anxiety associated with separations by listening closely to what our child is communicating. Acceptance of our children’s fear, sadness and anger is essential. While separations are difficult we can provide our children with reassurance that we are returning. If the transition is turned into a positive learning experience, eventually the child will come to know that separations and reunions are a part of loving and being loved. Here are some tips to take the sting out of separations and turning partings into a growth experience:

Prepare your child for the change as far in advance as possible

Visit the school with your child before enrollment

Express enthusiasm for all the fun things your child will be doing

Paint a positive picture of the experience by talking to your child about the other children, toys and activities

Encourage your child to talk about concerns and let her know it’s OK to be sad, angry and excited at the same time.

Read stories about animals and children who have successfully coped with


Take a family snapshot so she can take it along with her

Arrange your schedule so you have extra time to spend with your child during the adjustment period

Do not sneak away-although tempting-it’s not a good practice, try to develop your very own goodbye ritual

Suggested Resources: Following is a list of classic tales involving separations and joyous reunions. While instilling the love of the written word your child can symbolically work through fears and delight in the quality together time:

Goodnight Moon, by M.W. Brown, Harper and Row, 1947

You Go Away by D. Corey, Albert Whitman, 1976

The goodbye Book by Judith Viorst, Anthneum, 1988

Hello, Goodbye by David Lloyd,

Dawn Marie Barhyte is a former infant/toddler head teacher as well as co-director of daycare centers. She holds a degree in psychology and a child development associate. Published widely in parenting and education publications nationwide she continues to touch the lives of families today through her writing.


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