Saying goodbye to one’s child at the door of the childcare center is a difficult time for both parent & child. Even if the child is happy and well cared for in the childcare center, the separation process is stressful. Children display all manner of communication to register their displeasure. They may cry, cling to the the parent, and/or beg the parent not to leave. Some may display tantrum behavior such as screaming or acting out in other ways. When the parent ultimately must exit, the child appears inconsolable resulting in the day beginning with both parent and child distressed and emotionally exhausted. Even when parents are aware that the child’s distressed behavior subsides within minutes of their exit, the experience is excruciating.
As a result many parents avail themselves of any opportunity to slip away unnoticed. If the child has settled into playing with toys or other children, many parents will comment to the childcare teacher they they are going to sneak away before the child notices they are leaving. The parent is clearly relieved that the child is calm and engaged with the program and they welcome the opportunity to begin the day on a more positive note. However, there can be unintended, long term consequences associated with this strategy.
Although emotionally taxing, when a parent consistently engages in the goodbye ritual, despite the child’s distress the child gradually learns to cope with separation from a loved one. By assuring the child that the parent will return at an anticipated time, the child develops trust and confidence that he/she is not being permanently abandoned. This phenomenon is called object constancy, which is the ability to know and understand that a loved one does not cease to exist even when the child cannot see, hear or touch the parent. Object constancy allows an individual to experience the comfort of a loving, supportive relationship even when physically separated. Over time the child learns to prepare for the separation event with the internal assurance that the separation is temporary and the parent will return at a predictable time.
On the other hand, slipping away while the child is otherwise engaged, while effective in avoiding a confrontation at that moment, can have long term consequences in undermining a child’s sense of trust, security and healthy development of object constancy. What a child learns is that acts of independence and inattention to the loved one, can result in the loved one vanishing without explanation for an undetermined duration. Paradoxically this increases the child’s need to cling to the parent and not tolerate separation of any kind. Caring staff can reassure the child that the parent simply went to work and will return at the end of the day, but doubt and anxiety are not assuaged. The anxiety prevails until the parent returns and ends the separation.
Object constancy and the ability to tolerate separation from loved ones is developed over time by repeated instances of predictable separation experiences in which the child has an opportunity to express the associated grief, receive reassurance the loved one will return and experience the loved one returning as predicted. Doubt, mistrust and anxiety are fostered by a loved one repeatedly disappearing without explanation. Helping children learn to deal with the inevitability of separation is one of the more emotionally challenging tasks a parent faces. And one of the most important.