Recently, I was doing some work with my dear friend, Kelly Matthews, thinking about the challenge that families and educators feel at this time of year with children who feel the pain of good-byes.

We were talking about typical approaches to separation anxiety, and talked of using toys when children are sad…like this:

The family leaves, the child cries, the care provider brings a toy or shakes a rattle:

“You’re okay. Mommy will be back soon. Don’t cry. Come over here and let’s play with this BIG TOWER! WOW! Look at all this COOL ART!” Think sing-songy voice, raised eyebrows, exaggerated smile…

Kelly made a really insightful comment. She said:

Toys serve as emotional distractions, and if children don’t learn to manage strong emotional feelings when they are young in healthy ways, what things will substitute for toys as children grow up?

I called her to talk in more detail about this idea, and with her permission, I transcribed our conversation.

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Kelly: First, I have to say that this idea has developed over years of practice and thought, influenced by Magda Gerber and Haim Ginott. I don’t recall exactly where the idea started, but I believe it was through their work.

Years ago, I was working in Iowa City in a Head Start program. A new child came to us and started with us for the first time (transition #1). His parents were in the middle of a divorce (transition #2). And if that wasn’t enough transitions at one time, his home had just burned down (transition #3).

At drop off every morning, he would cry, and we would talk. One day, I didn’t try to make him do anything. I didn’t distract him from what he was feeling. I simply asked him if he would like to sit by the window and watch for his mom and dad to come back. He said yes. Our classroom was on the second story, and sitting by the window, he could see the parking lot. I got him a chair and he sat there all day.

It felt inauthentic to have him to anything else. To try and lure him over to the art corner to paint. To have him playing with toys or reading books. What could possibly be more important for this little boy than to sit and watch for the most important person in his life to come back?

Emily: What a moment. How powerful.

not-happy-1480797Kelly: Children who feel big feelings when their loved ones leave are in need. What happens when we use toys to distract children is that they feels like no one understands them. When kids don’t feel understood, they feel unimportant. Like we don’t know their big sadness.

Emily: It also must feel so scary. Like the powerful adults in their lives are oblivious to their sorrow.

Kelly: But that’s the thing. Adults are not oblivious. They know exactly what’s going on. They see the tears, the clenched fists, and the sorrow, but they do exactly the opposite. They try to entice children with toys or shake rattles or try to end the crying as soon as possible. Those acts of trying to calm children by distracting them from their sorrow, in effect, is communicating to them that what they are feeling is not happening.

Truthfully, we know that they are upset. We see it. And yet we act like the opposite is happening. We act like upset children are giving us cues that they are ready to play when it is clear that they are not at all ready to play.

Emily: It seems to me like one of the hallmarks of American parenting (and I say “American” parenting because my experience with other cultures is limited enough that I don’t know what this looks like in other cultures) is the desire to pacify the crying. Like our gauge for knowing if a child is fine is if they are not crying. In reality, when we distract a child from their strong emotions when their loved ones leave, we may be removing the crying, but we are not actually helping a child find emotional balance. If anything, we are teaching the child to connect with things that help disengage.

Kelly: We are modeling disengagement at their most vulnerable times.

Emily: So what do you do? How do you connect with a child who is crying?

Kelly: First, stop telling children that they are okay. One of the most common things to say to crying children is “Shhh…you’re okay.” The fact is that they are not okay. They are crying. Instead, help them begin to find language for their strong emotions.

Start by sportscasting their physical experience: “I see that you are crying. Your fists are really tight and your face is red.”

Next, offer a guess as to why they are upset. Often, we have a pretty clear idea: “You are sad because your Daddy had to leave.”

Then, offer a moment of connection: “I hear you. It’s hard to leave the ones we love.”

Last, suggest a tool to help mitigate the strong feelings: “Is there something that I can do that would help you feel comforted?”

  • “Would you like me to sit beside you?”
  • “Would you like a cool washcloth for your face?”
  • “Would you like to read a book together?”
  • With older children, I would ask, “Would you like to be left alone for a little bit? I will come and check on you in a moment to see if you are okay?”

Tom Hunter talked of relationship building. He used the term “keeping company” to mean sitting with a child without distracting the child. I really connect with this phrase. We have the power to affirm a child’s emotional experience through presence.

I don’t like the term separation anxiety and instead, look for ways to help children feel connected, both with their families and with the community in their care settings.

Emily: We don’t distract children when they are sad about their families leaving, because it’s okay—normal!— to be sad when loved ones go away. That sorrow is a sign of connection. I am sad when I am away from my loved ones, but I have lots of years of experience of knowing how that separation will resolve. Children are still learning what to expect.

As we model healthy reactions to the emotional pain of leaving, we affirm for children that their sorrow is real and important, and they learn to honor it, too.

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KellyKelly Matthews is the owner of A Place for You Consulting in Oshkosh, WI, loves the playful mindfulness of improvisation, promotes experiential learning & adores combining these two passions in her innovative offerings of professional development around the country.   She can be reached at APlaceForYouConsult@yahoo.com .

Kelly has also contributed several other pieces on my blog in the past. See them here, or here, or here.