Ever wonder why your child keeps coming back and checking on you when he/she is playing or doing activities in pre-school? Are you starting to wonder if your child is afraid of something, or just being clingy? This post will help you understand what this behavior means and how to navigate this phase with your child.
Watching the emotional and psychological development of a child is fascinating and terrifying at the same time! It can be difficult to know what to expect as your child is growing and adjusting to new social environments. Psychologists have studied intriguing developmental phases in childhood and have attempted to capture what these phases mean for the child. One such theorist is Margaret Mahler.
According to Mahler’s theory of child development, an infant goes through stages of separation and individuation from the primary caregiver. As an infant, the child is attached to the primary caregiver, which is the basis of love, security and attachment. As the child grows from an infant to toddler, many small phases occur in which he/she is trying to find his/her independence and exploring things, but at the same time is worried of losing his/her attachment figure. This may manifest in behaviors like clinging and sometimes running away from you to explore novel things in the environment.
Children at this stage don’t quite understand that if you are not around them, you still exist. This idea may seem strange, but according to research, children below 2 years of age do not have the concept of ‘object constancy’ (that’s why peek-a-boo is such a magical and fun game for them!).
Instead they fear that if they don’t see you, you have vanished and may never come back. This results in your child constantly coming back and checking on you when they are doing their activities in pre-school or enjoying playtime in the parks. This checking back behavior is assuring them that if they go far and get scared, they know you will still be there for them. You are your child’s secure base. Gradually, they will be able to hold that feeling of trust and security, and internalize it so that they don’t have to check on you to be there anymore.
This behavior is important and even necessary for the growth of your child’s sense of security and attachment to you. This helps the child to feel more secure of themselves in the outside world. Although this process is natural to child development, parents can often feel helpless, frustrated, and scared at this time, especially when your child is in pre-school and settling into a new routine.
So here are some helpful tips to remember and practice:
1. Relax and breathe: Your child will separate from you when he/she is ready. This phase is important for the child to gain a sense of trust and security from you. Every child will have his/her own rhythm through this process. Take a deep breath and relax. When your child approaches you during this phase, smile and encourage them to continue their activity. Sometimes, assuring them that you are here can also be helpful.
2. Have a conversation about it: When your child approaches you during or after their activity at pre-school, or during play in the playground, have a conversation with them about their activity and how they are feeling about it. If you find that your child is particularly upset during certain activities, offer to go and play with them for a while. You can also continue the same activity at home and help your child to feel more comfortable around the activity.
3. Use a transitional object: Sometimes giving your child a transitional object (an object that represents trust and security for your child) can also be helpful. Having an object that reminds the child that you are around will help the child in settling into new routine and new social environment.
4. Technology can help: A unique way to help your child feel comfortable in new situations, especially a new pre-school or any social environment, is to use photographs and videos. When your child is in a new preschool or starts out at a new play space, having photographs and videos of them doing activities there may be helpful in creating a conversation around the new situation. When your child is able to see the photographs and videos later on, they will be able to create more familiarity with the new space and may start feeling more safe in the new environment.
The most important thing is that you are fully present with your child during this phase. The key is to help your child feel safe and more confident in new situations and to not rush them.
Please contact us any time if you would like some support in this area for your child and/or yourself.
Posted by Kratika Choudhary, Advanced Clinical Intern