(written with co-author Anne Piche)
Separation anxiety is common in children and causes confusion and stress for parents. Holding a group for parents with a nearby group for their children has produced some positive results.
When we decided to do a daytime parenting group we realized that childcare for pre-school children is one of the most important services needed to get parents to come. Many at-home mothers wanted to attend the group, but did not have childcare.
The two authors, a parenting-group facilitator and a childcare worker especially good with babies and toddlers, decided to run a weekly parenting group with childcare offered in the same facility so the mothers could be close by.
Each of us came to this with the experience that working with only parents or children at different times was limited, and parents were continually frustrated with the seeming lack of progress around separation issues. We hoped we could help families move through this difficult stage more efficiently by holding the groups simultaneously with a common theory guiding each.
The assistance of a graduate intern in the childcare room contributed greatly by giving the primary childcare provider the freedom to be able to focus her attention on one child when necessary to assist that child through a difficult transition. Also, sharing the ideas and demonstrating the practice was valuable to the intern.
For the ten weeks of the group, the mothers and children arrived and went into the children’s room first. They were greeted warmly by the team members who took a few minutes to listen to them. The mothers were encouraged to take some time saying goodbye to the children, assuring them they would be back, as always. The caretakers also reassured the children that they were safe and that the moms would be back in awhile.
When the mothers left, some of the children cried. The caretakers were able to give the children attention and encouraged them to show how badly they feel when their moms go away.
Usually, when children show their fear and anxiety, people try to distract them or tell them their feelings are not appropriate. In this group, the children could work through their struggles with help. The other children sometimes asked questions and the staff was able to directly and simply talk about how it feels when someone you love leaves you. Normalizing this separation phenomenon and seeing an adult stay relaxed and attentive when a child is having difficulty created safety for all the children. Allowing a child the space to work through to a positive outcome, teaches a child that with support, they can toil through even very difficult feelings. When their minds are free of worry, they can return to relating to the people and world around them.
Here is Anne’s description from the childrens’ space: As the childcare provider for the team, I experienced success that gave me great satisfaction, especially with one of the young people. I had seen this mother and son previously and they had been struggling with separation issues. For the first session, D. screamed and clung to his mother when she prepared to leave him with me and go to the mothers group. D. expressed his anger, sadness and fear for the entire hour by screaming, crying, shaking and generally not relating to anyone else in the room. I continually paid close attention to him. He did not want me to touch him so I stayed with him at a respectful distance, continuing to talk to him. When his mother returned, he again clung to her and cried and buried himself in her arms. The second week, D. started to cry and scream on his way to the building and continued through their separation and for the entire hour. I was, however able to make eye contact with him for brief periods this time. Upon her return, he clung to his mother and continued to cry. On week three, D. came in expressing his distress again and cried and screamed for a few minutes. When he quieted a bit, I attempted to engage him and interest him in some of the activities that were happening in the room. He refused and “sulked” awhile. I kept connecting with him, inviting him, and remaining hopeful and then, quite spontaneously he joined me at the chalkboard and happily drew pictures, directed my drawings, chatted with me and smiled for the remainder of the hour. When his mother returned, D. engaged her in his activity, continuing to draw and chat for several minutes until the group dispersed.
At the same time, the parents were in the next room for a support and skill-building group. Here is Emmy’s report. The parents could hear the children crying. I was able to work with the mothers about how they felt when their children have strong emotions. I explained that adults have physical and emotional reactions to children crying and that is normal. I emphasized that the children were safe, and each parent was free to check on her child at any time. I encouraged them instead to tell the group how it feels when their children are crying.
This led to wonderful disclosures and emotional releases about the challenges, the loneliness and the stresses of parenting. This was accompanied by loads of tears and laughter. In addition, the parents were able to know that other adults could be relaxed and attentive while the children were expressing difficult emotions and I reminded them repeatedly that this is exactly what was happening in the childrens’ room. They found that hard to believe, and were quite surprised when they later saw the childcare workers looking relaxed and pleased. The mothers were able to wrestle with their own feelings while their children struggled nearby. We exposed the common parental difficulty of allowing children their full expression, including the “negative” emotions. We had good discussions about the challenge of setting clear limits for children without blaming or hurting them and how to stop the pull to stifle or punish a child who is struggling.
One parent, T. worked through a great deal. Her son D. was very upset about leaving her and she had not known what to do. The parents encouraged her to keep coming to the group, even though her son cried long and hard for the first two sessions. She cried in the parents’ group about how desperate she was, feeling crowded by her son’s attachment to her and guilty about wanting space. After the third meeting, when she saw her son playing happily, she was encouraged.
At the end of each session, the parents went back into the childcare room and talked with their child and the workers about how it went. We spent the last minutes together enjoying the reunions. During their separation, some had released emotions, some witnessed others releasing emotions, some discovered abilities that surprised them. They were happy to come back together having learned something important by being apart.
Parents want to spend quality time with their children but are hampered by discomfort or confusion about how to resolve conflicts, such as separation. Parenting in isolation does not help.
Our working theory was that the struggle these families faced around separation issues would be alleviated by giving parents time to develop trusting support, to learn and practice new skills and to release some of their own anxieties, while allowing the same for the children. We were able to use the parent/child issues that were presented by the families themselves and we were pleased with what we were able to accomplish.