From the moment the umbilical cord is cut, you are aware that your child is separate from you. But because this tiny, vulnerable being is at first totally dependent on you for his or her survival, and because you and your baby are so wrapped up in each other, it may feel to you that you are not really separate. Negotiating the early years and all the steps towards achieving a healthy balance between dependence and independence is a complex and tricky process. Separation issues are experienced on emotional and physical levels, bringing up many profound and intense feelings in children and parents alike. For parents, their memories of having been separated from their own parents or siblings, play a big role in their feelings, expectations, and assumptions about their children’s reactions to being separated from them, whether it is for minutes, hours, or weeks.
In theory, parents know or have heard a lot about separation. For example, they may have been told that it is important not to pick up their child every time he cries, because he must learn how to self-soothe or go to sleep on his own. Or, on the contrary, that your baby must be picked up every time she cries, because that will give her the sense of security that lays the foundation for future self-confidence and independence. Parents have certainly heard about the necessity of accepting the “terrible twos” and supporting toddlers’ adamant push for autonomy. We live in a society that values individualism, initiative taking, “standing on your own two feet”, and “making it on your own.” The term "separation anxiety" bears a negative connotation.
In real life, however, it may be impossible for a parent to listen impassively to her baby crying in the crib or to his child whining for attention. The way toddlers go back and forth between wanting autonomy (“do it by myself!”, ”want to walk, no stroller!”) and then, a second later, becoming clingy and babyish (“carry me!”, “Mommy do it”) can be maddening. Some parents become angry or anxious if their child is clingy, others have a harder time accepting their child’s growing autonomy. There are endless debates about whether a child should stay home with one caregiver or be placed in daycare, whether a two year old should be enrolled in separation classes, feed himself, sleep by herself, and at what age a child is ready for potty training or nursery school. Many parents question at what age it is safe to leave a child with a grandparent or nanny while they, the parents, go off on a trip by themselves. How many days and nights can a 1, 2, or 3 year old be separated from one or both parents without negative consequences?
At The Pacella Parent Child Center, we pay attention to each individual parent’s and child’s temperament, needs, wishes, and cultural background. Each mother-child pair goes through its own process, at its own rate, and in its own way. Our setting, with distinct areas for side by side mothers’ discussion group and separately staffed children’s play group, is perfectly designed for working on the many different aspects of separation. Separation begins with the parent’s decision to turn her baby around to face away from her, then to put her infant down on a quilt close to her feet, and ends with parent and child fully engaging in separate activities with other people while still feeling connected and available to one another. Through important developmental concepts, such as “checking in”, “refueling”, and “using the parent as a secure base”, we support a fluid coming and going between parent and child, using language, physical contact and other forms of non-verbal communication. We give parents the concept of making bridges to help their children reach a new place or a new phase which seemed unattainable at first. We offer practical advice about how to prepare a child for parents’ going on a trip, for the birth of a new baby, or for the first year of preschool.
In our groups, we do not lecture or discuss theories of development. Rather, parents and children have a real life experience of becoming more separate and more autonomous while maintaining connection and intimacy. In fact, it is trust in the connection with his parents that allows a child to explore at a distance and to finally feel safe in the absence of the parents. Likewise, it is a parent’s belief that she is loved and needed by her child that allows her to let go so that her child can explore the environment and freely relate to others. Attachment bonds are strengthened as both parent and child feel safe to remain or become his or her own person, separate from but always in close relation to the most important people in his or her life.