When It Hurts to Say Good-Bye

The first experience at daycare, kindergarten or grade school is an important milestone for children and parents alike. A good experience can set the stage for years of happy learning for your child and relieves your worries.

"Parents play a critical role in helping their child adjust to the routines of daycare or school life," says Dr. Rebecca Eder, director of psychology at St. Louis Children's Hospital. "In fact, their behavior and feelings are a key factor in helping their child make the adjustment."

Remember the last time you started a new job? Now think how you would feel if you didn't have the language to express your anxiety and discomfort and ask questions about your new environment. Crying and clinging is the way children communicate those same feelings. The trick to a smooth transition into daycare or school is to alleviate the child's fears by demonstrating your own confidence that everything will be fine. If your child senses that you have your own doubts or feel guilty about the separation, her anxiety will increase.

Start the adjustment into your child's new surroundings well before the first day. You can begin by scheduling a visit to the daycare center or new school or plan to take advantage of open houses. Have the daycare staff or teacher take you to all the areas your child will see. Keep your visit to 15 or 20 minutes and stay with your child. Smiles, hugs and your hand nearby will reassure an anxious child that this is a safe place.

At home, it's never too early to start that early to bed, early to rise routine. That way, the first morning won't be such a shock. When it arrives, Dr. Eder suggests that you avoid a big rush. Children should be awakened early enough to ease into the day -- and the idea that their routine is about to change. "The beginning of a new school year should be celebrated with a new back pack or new school supplies." But watch out for new, stiff clothes. "Clothing that hasn't been broken in only adds to discomfort. Let them wear one of their old favorites."

No matter how much you have prepared your child, you should expect some crying and clinging at the moment of separation. "This behavior is a demonstration of how important the parent is. The parent's understanding will help the child learn that his feelings are acceptable."

Before you know it, that first day, the initiation into an important rite of passage for both you and your child, will be a sweet and distant memory.

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