Separation and independence: What to expect when
Most, though not all, 5-year-olds are ready to tackle school. For some children, going to kindergarten marks the first major separation from you and your partner. For kids who attended daycare or preschool, kindergarten is still a major turning point, because your child will be given more responsibilities and independence in school. And "big" school is usually a much larger and more complex social setting than any she's known before.
What you'll see
At this age, your child is probably able to separate from you and your partner comfortably. In fact, she may be eager to head off to a friend's house, or stay with grandma for the weekend. Still, helping your child cope with separation now will make future separations easier. That's especially true if your child has a shy, anxious, or timid temperament, since she may be more sensitive to separations.
Your child will also be increasingly less dependent on you by now. That's a positive sign that she's more secure and her sense of identity is stronger. For instance, during this year, if not before, your child will learn the value of friends — both children and adults — outside her own family, a strong indicator of her growing independence. She'll be able to do more things for herself, such as taking a bath with your help. And she can help out with family chores, including setting the table for dinner or planting seeds for a vegetable garden. But don't panic; despite this emerging independence, there's a long way yet before your child goes off to college.
What you can do
It's simple: Encourage your child's growing independence. "The challenge of parenting lies in finding the balance between nurturing, protecting, and guiding your child, and allowing her to explore, experiment, and become an independent, unique person," says California family therapist Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline book series. So let your child safely try something new, such as trying a different food, finding a new friend, or riding a bike without training wheels, and resist the urge to intervene. Jumping in to say, "I'll do it" can foster dependence and diminish your child's confidence.
You'll also want to balance between offering your child developmentally appropriate challenges, which may still involve some frustration on her part, and having her stretch to tackle developmentally inappropriate tasks, which can squelch independence. In other words, let her tough it out a bit as she figures out where to put things as she sets the table, for instance, but don't expect her to make a whole salad. Watch for her cues. Following are some smart strategies to try:
At home Acknowledge the importance of your child's increasingly independent relationships. Suggest that your kindergartner invite her school pals home. It's important for the self-esteem of a child this age to show off her home, family, and toys. This doesn't mean your house has to be luxurious or filled with expensive playthings; warm and welcoming is what's needed here.
At school A child who has a tough time separating, or one who isn't used to being apart from you or your partner, can benefit from a little extra time in the morning before heading off to kindergarten. Plan to wait with her at the bus stop before saying goodbye. Or build in extra time for breakfast together.
Around others A child's sense of independence is also nourished when you treat her with respect. For instance, her body is her own, so don't insist that she kiss or hug relatives or family friends if she doesn't want to. Instead, let her set her own pace for public displays of affection. If Grandma feels slighted, simply explain to her that you don't want to force your child to show her affection when she doesn't want to — she'll probably find other ways to let her know she's happy to see her.
At sleepovers You should also assess whether your child is ready for a sleepover or an extended stay at a relative's home. If she needs elaborate bedtime rituals or clings or cries when you leave her or seems unhappy in new situations, you may want to postpone a sleepover — for everyone's sake. Instead, try a practice run: Send your pj-clad, sleeping-bag-toting child to a friend's or family member's place for a few hours of nighttime fun, chatting, and snacking. Around 9 o'clock, you can pick her up and then everyone can get some sleep.
If, on the other hand, your child is eager to go away for a night, sleeps well at home, and handles separation without any drama, then go ahead and let her go to a sleepover. Just make sure to answer any questions she might have beforehand, such as where she will sleep, and tell her she can come home at any time if she needs to. Then help her get ready for the big occasion, drop her off, and let her know when you or your partner will pick her up the next day. Make sure you come when you say you will. You may also want to call your child around bedtime, if you think that might be comforting.
What to watch out for
If your child clings, cries, or otherwise displays a major protest when you or your partner leaves her, talk to her pediatrician. It may simply mean that she has a tendency to such behavior because of her shy or timid temperament, which she'll probably overcome by age 6. Or she may be stressed about a new change, such as going to school, moving to a new house, or the unexpected absence of a parent. A persistent problem with separating that lasts four weeks or more and negatively affects the quality of your child's life, for instance skipping playdates to avoid anxiety, should be discussed with her doctor, says Kristi Alexander, a pediatric psychologist at United States International University in San Diego.
Don't despair if your 5-year-old starts being rude when you ask him to do something he doesn't want to do. Difficult as this behavior may be to tolerate, it's actually a sign that he's learning to challenge authority and test the limits of his independence. Simply tell him in a calm but firm manner that such behavior is unacceptable and then move on. Making a big fuss over backtalk can backfire: You may actually prolong this sassy patter instead of putting a stop to it.
The road to adulthood is riddled with separations: the first day of middle school, the first time away at summer camp, and even the first year of college. As your child moves through the elementary-school years, she'll become increasingly independent and show an even greater comfort level with separating from you and your partner for sleepovers, visits with grandparents, and out-of-town field trips. Peers and adults outside the immediate family — such as teachers, coaches, aunts, and uncles — will play an increasingly important role in her life. But you're not done yet: Your child will always need your guidance, encouragement, and love.
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