Parent-Child Separation for Short Time

Should I feel uneasy about leaving my little one with a babysitter or dropping him off at the church nursery for an hour or so? I'm a new parent, and I don't know if it's healthy for my child to be separated from me, even for relatively short periods of time. What's your perspective on this?

There’s nothing “unhealthy” about the kind of separations you have in mind. In fact, it’s possible to see them as preliminary steps in the long and complicated process of growing up. They’re part of the progression by which we all make the difficult transition from infancy to adulthood. As such, they’re positive, healthy and desirable events in the life of every child.

How these separations should be approached and handled depends on the age of the child and the amount of time involved. If it’s a matter of dropping off an infant or toddler at the church nursery for an hour every Sunday morning, parents should be prepared to deal with a set of challenges specific to that situation. If we’re talking about a school-age child who will be staying with an aunt and uncle for several days while mom and dad are away, there will be different hurdles to overcome. In both instances, however, the basic needs are the same: kids want to be assured that they haven’t been abandoned, and parents want to feel that their youngsters are receiving adequate care.

In the case of babies and toddlers, it’s important to remember that children at this age have no sense of time. All they want to know is, “Are mom and dad ever coming back?” For this reason, it can be helpful to take an incremental approach with a one- or two-year-old. Arrange a “trial run” with your sitter, childcare worker or nursery staff. If your child responds to your leaving with cries and screams, try coming back for a brief “visit” every ten minutes or so during your first outing. Bring them a distracting toy or treat each time you pop into the room. Next time you can stretch the intervals to 15 or 20 minutes, then to half an hour. Eventually your child will get used to the idea that you do return every time you leave, and separation will no longer be an issue.

The problem is a bit trickier where preschoolers and kindergarteners are concerned. Parents don’t have the option of interrupting classroom situations in order to deal with a child’s separation anxiety. In such cases, you can reinforce the desired behavior by rewarding your child or arranging a special celebration – an evening out for pizza or ice cream – during the early stages of adjustment when he or she gets through the day successfully or is making positive progress.

When leaving children with friends or relatives for an extended period, it helps to do everything you can to remind them that you love them and that you’ll be thinking about them while you’re away. Use some creativity and you’ll discover that the possibilities are endless. You might write a series of sealed notes for the kids to open, one each day during your absence. Enclose a tangible token of your love with each of these brief messages – a small toy, for instance, or a piece of candy or gum. Let them know that you miss them and that you’re looking forward to being together at home again. Obviously, you can communicate the same thoughts by way of a daily phone call. The important thing is to maintain a sense of connectedness during your absence.

When dealing with separations of all types, it’s helpful to keep two things in mind. First, this is a good thing and an important step for a growing child. Second, it’s okay to comfort him or her in any way you think appropriate if separations are difficult in the beginning – in other words, there’s no need for harshness here. If you need help applying these concepts to your personal situation, we’d like to invite you to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.


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