Leaving your toddler with a daycare provider for the first time can be an emotional experience, for both you and your child. There might be sadness for him, and guilt for you. You might struggle with yielding control, and fear losing that unique sense of closeness.
But when you think about it, you’re giving your toddler a great opportunity: He or she can connect with others–both the daycare provider(s) and the children. Your child will form many attachments in his or her life, and you can support that process right from the start.
It’s important to remember a few things about toddlers:
A lot of what looks like oppositional behavior at this age is really the conflict they’re experiencing between wanting to go explore, and wanting to stay close.
That’s part of where the renewed separation anxiety comes from between the ages of 18 and 24 months. They fear losing the parent for good, and that they’ve done something to drive the parent away.
Rituals around hello’s and goodbye’s can help, with explicit reassurance from the parents that they are looking forward to returning. To cope with the separation throughout the day, we can provide transitional objects like favorite toys and blankets. These can conjure the safety of home. For older toddlers, phone calls to the parents might also be useful.
What’s key is for the caregiver to form an emotional bond with your child. This can seem threatening, in a way: What if my child becomes more attached to her than to me? What if I miss out on what she gets to experience?
These feelings tend to be transient and intermittent (like if you’ve missed a milestone). Deep down, we want our child to have a secure connection to other adults when we can’t be present.
Sometimes parents have difficulty with the transition themselves, and so they do things like sneak out or linger too long. They might engage in these behaviors because they see their children struggling and they’re not sure how to handle it.
But we need to think about what message we’re sending to a child through our behavior, if we’re reinforcing the idea that the child can’t count on us or is not safe in the environment. We need to teach our children that they (and we) are strong enough to handle a separation.
If you’re struggling with your own guilt about having to leave, that can influence your child’s experience. So make sure you’re staying emotionally attuned to yourself, as well as to your toddler.
You both need reassurance, and here it is: You’ll get through it, one day at a time.
Child in daycare photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 14 Feb 2013