Letting Go


19 Sep Letting Go

Buffy Smith has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.  For many years she was the School Psychologist at Bank Street School for Children, before starting a busy private practice on the Upper West Side. 

At our Montclare New Parent Breakfast this September, after going through some necessary beginning-of-the year housekeeping and stroller policy reminders, we had the great pleasure of hearing Dr. Buffy Smith address our families and head teachers.  An expert on navigating the child’s inner world, Dr. Smith is always highly edifying and I have had the privilege of hearing her speak to our families a number of times over the years.  This fall, however, her words resonated in a new way for me.

My ten year old tween, who just started middle-school, has decided he doesn’t want to be kissed goodbye in front of his school anymore!  Apparently, it’s babyish and embarrassing, oh, and he seems to be under the impression that he has a “girlfriend!”  Aside from the realization that I had mistakenly thought I had a few more years before I would be confronted with this type of situation, I recognized that the biggest difference between going through separation with a fifth grader and a preschooler is that, this time, I am the one who is experiencing the greatest separation anxiety!

So parents, please take note.  Perhaps you’ve already been through the separation process with your toddler and think you’re done. Separation is, indeed, a process, and I am beginning to understand that it is one that endures a lifetime.

Dr. Smith began by stating that:

  • Although your two year old is probably showing signs of being developmentally ready to begin this important process, there are ways that you can help to support your child and foster greater independence.
  • Your child can walk and doesn’t need to be carried everywhere!  When time and distance permit, allow your child to walk to school and up the stairs like a big kid.
  • However messy it may get, your child is also very capable of feeding himself and drinking from a cup.  Cups are for big girls and boys!


Allowing your child to do these simple things on his/her own strengthens confidence and promotes a necessary sense of separateness. While every child may experience separation differently based on many factors including temperament and personality, it is important for toddlers to begin exploring their autonomy.

We sometimes forget (or at least want to!) that children take their emotional cues from the “important” adults in their lives.  In other words, your child is a little mind-reader and can easily pick up on your anxiety!  Dr. Smith’s advice to parents is that we remain calm and positive both when discussing and participating in the start of school as adults may otherwise, inadvertently, pass on their own anxiety to their children.  If you find separating from your little one too emotionally charged, it is often a good idea to have a caregiver, or someone less emotionally invested, handle separation.

In order for your child to begin to feel at ease in school, he/she must develop an emotional attachment to the classroom teachers.  As we are very protective of our little ones, Dr. Smith asked parents to    allow their child the “space to gravitate towards the teacher.”  It is at this time that your child begins to internalize the concept that he/she is separate from you, paving the way for trusting relationships outside of the immediate family.​  Dr. Smith advised parents and caregivers to talk about school in a positive way.  Reinforce the connection between your child and teacher by asking pointed questions about school.  Familiarize yourself with your child’s schedule and ask about what songs they sang in music, what was served for snack, how your child enjoyed the “green playdoh” that was out on the table at drop-off.  The more you talk about school in an affirmative, specific way, the better.  Your child will begin to understand that you trust his/her teachers.

Critical to easing this transition is keeping your child’s out-of-school environment consistent.  Dr. Smith cautioned that, if you are experiencing unavoidable, major life change such as a new job, new home or the arrival of a baby, pay special attention to keeping rituals steady.  She joked that this would not be a good time to go “gluten-free!”  Mealtime and bedtime routines should remain predictable and establishing these stable rituals is important in making children feel safe and secure.  Just remember to keep rituals simple!  As parents, we all know how a bedtime routine can easily shift from “short and sweet” to drawn-out and exhausting!

To help children adapt to their new school environment, Dr. Smith suggests encouraging dramatic play around the separation process.  Having your child act out going to school and saying goodbye to Mommy or Daddy, can be very helpful in setting up a sense of predictability and self-confidence.  Fake-it-till-you-make-it doesn’t just work for adults!  Games like hide and seek or peek-a-boo, even if your child hasn’t indulged in these for a while, allow children to reinforce their understanding of object permanence and understand that, even when you can’t see Daddy, he still exists and loves you!

For certain children, transitional objects may be extremely helpful in easing separation pains.  A small object from home brought into the classroom provides emotional support, symbolizing the comfort and security of home – and remember to try to have duplicates of your transitional object!  Many parents have experienced the terror of their child’s favorite blanket, toy or stuffed animal disappearing!  Bear in mind that the transitional object doesn’t have to be something precious.  Familiar is sometimes good enough.  Whatever the object, it will help to “build a bridge” between home and school.

When the time comes to say goodbye, remember that an “honest” goodbye is always best.  Absolutely no sneaking away, as tempting as that may be.  If a child realizes you have left without saying goodbye, it raises suspicion and vigilance and does not reinforce a sense of trust and confidence.  Equally important is that you not ask “permission” to leave.  Mommy/Daddy needs to go to work, not “is it ok if Daddy leaves now?”  This is one of those moments when the toddler needs to understand that we often must adhere to external agendas and schedules.

In closing I asked Dr. Smith what caregivers and parents should say to children who are envious of a younger sibling who “gets” to stay home.  She said to, once again, focus on the positive, reminding your child the younger sibling doesn’t “get” to come to school, meet new friends, learn fun songs and eat snack  – or whatever you think your child will enjoy best about school.  Elicit your child’s feelings and then “sell it!”

The end goal for us as parents is always, at any stage, the well-being of our children.  We want them to experience life as confident, curious, independent people and this is where it all begins.  Even as they grow bigger and eye-rolling sets in as the default reaction to… everything!  Separating.  Letting go.

Fine by me, as long as they promise to come visit and call on my birthday!

(More tips on preschool separation)