Saying Goodbye: Parents’ Separation Anxiety at Day Care and Beyond

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In 2010 American families spent nearly 10% of their monthly income on childcare, but for many the true cost of daycare is an emotional price, not a monetary one. The first week of daycare is painful. I personally have witnessed the tears, heard the screams, and watched the tantrums countless times as a daycare provider, as well as the mother of 4 children—ages 17, 16, 4, and 1. I have experienced that traumatic initial moment of separation 4 times over, and I can say with confidence that this moment is much more traumatic for the parents than it is for the child.

Just a few weeks ago I watched this scene unfold at my home daycare provider’s. As I walked through the front door in the morning, I could immediately sense an unusual tension in the room. Two first-time parents stood, dressed in their professional best, with arms crossed in the middle of the living room. A meticulously packed diaper bag sat at attention on the sofa. Their only son, 13 months old, was perched in the daycare provider’s arms, curiously scoping out the new surroundings as mom and dad spewed a litany of directions and reminders. Clearly, the parents were the anxious ones in this situation.

It turns out that, not only is this infant their only child, he is also the only grandchild. Since he had never had any caregivers other than his parents and his maternal grandparents, this moment of separation was significant for the family, but that significance was one created by the parents, not the child.

I quietly looked on as the daycare provider reassured both parents and walked them to the door, saying goodbye firmly but gently. The tears flowed from mom and child, and the son’s crying became forceful as the parents hesitantly opened their car doors. The parents’ discomfort was clearly evident, but the daycare provider smiled and helped their son wave goodbye, even through his tears.

Within two minutes of the parents’ departure, their son’s tears subsided and he was scooting through the new space exploring the potential. I know from personal experience that the parents’ separation anxiety was more pronounced and longer lasting.

As you are leaving your child in any new situation, keep these simple guidelines in mind:

• Your child is taking a new step towards independence with each experience; encourage his growth and development by being supportive.

• For younger children, out-of-sight really is out-of-mind. You will feel the pain of the separation for much longer than he will.

• Time flies when you’re having fun. Honestly, work for many of us would not be categorized as fun, but time certainly does appear to move more quickly when we are busy, so be busy. If you find yourself watching the clock and wondering about your child throughout the day, get moving. Find a new task that will keep your mind engaged.

I am reminding myself of these guidelines as my own “baby” goes off each day to his last year of high school. I try to remember them as he excitedly fills out college applications and gathers letters of recommendation. I already feel the familiar stirrings of anxiety at the thought of leaving him in a new situation next year, but experience has shown me that the separation will certainly be much worse for me than it is for him. In the end, I will smile, wave, and find a new task to keep my mind from missing him too much.

About the Author: Briana Kelly has over 5 years experience in the field of content writing and copywriting. She specialises in childcare advice and parenting. She regularly writes for Giraffe Childcare, a daycare provider in Dublin, Ireland.    

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