Saturday, 19 January 2013


Please don't tell me that children will settle more quickly if they aren't comforted!

This issue is topical at the moment, as we're all probably settling children into new rooms for the new year. The children I've been looking after are at the peak of separation anxiety, which comes between 10 and 18 months. Attachment to primary caregivers has been strong during the first year and now they're having to abruptly adapt to new circumstances and new carers.

I've often heard carers explain with conviction that children will settle more quickly if they are expected to comfort themselves. Experience has taught them that if a child is held too much or given too much attention he/she will come to expect this all the time. They have noticed that if a child is not comforted, he/she will eventually stop crying and it appears that peace has been restored. They put the child down and expect him/her to play with toys, or sit beside him/her and attempt to distract him/her with toys. At worst, they tell the child to stop crying because he/she is fine. They begin to lose more patience until the child is repeatedly told to stop. The child is being told off for feeling unhappy and insecure. I wonder if we would expect the same resilience from ourselves.

The child has not stopped crying because he/she is now settled and ready to engage with, and thrive in the new environment. He/she has stopped because he/she knows his/her needs will not be met. The child holds his/her emotion inside and feels even more insecure. When we experience a distressing or unpleasant emotion we hold the memory of that emotion inside for a long time. Later, when we encounter a new, similar situation, the degree of fear or insecurity that we feel is related more to the memory of that distressing emotion than to the reality of the new situation itself. Allowing children to feel this distressed will lead to difficulties during future transitions.

I don't believe that children want to sit on your lap and cry all day. They want to play. They crave independence and fun. Let them decide when they are ready to enjoy the new environment. Their feelings are real. They need to be acknowledged. In my experience the more comfort and loving attention you give to children, the more quickly they will settle and adapt. Children need to know that you are there as a safety net to catch them when they fall, when they're feeling vulnerable or sad or scared. Some children find adapting to change more difficult than others. They will take longer to settle.

You as the carer have the ability and the responsibility to help children successfully navigate transitions. All you need to do is to provide a caring, comforting and attractive environment and interact with children in a responsive way. Parents will sense their children's feelings of security in the environment and feel comfortable leaving them in your care. One of my parents cried at the end of the year because we had helped her cope with this most difficult time of separation with her child during his first year of childcare. This was the best feeling ever! It made me feel that all the hard work through the year had been worthwhile.

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