Bridge of Safety: building your child’s independence

Whether it is a Bridge of Safety or an Invisible String, a large part of building your child’s independence is reinforcing the strength of your connection even when you are not there in person. Our clinician Freya Hanly has put together a few tips to help you build this ‘virtual’ bond and ease transitions through school years or separation at the school gates.

Lots of parents struggle to know how to best support their child in their transition from Kinder to Prep. Starting school is a huge transition in your child’s life. As well as learning new academic skills, your child’s brain is very busy adjusting to the new environment, building relationships at school they can trust, learning how to make friends, and understanding the rules and rhythms of the school grounds.

If you think about it, that is a LOT of new information for one brain to absorb! Especially when that brain is used to learning and absorbing information with you right there by their side, as a kind of constant amidst all the newness.

Helping your child build up their independence will help them be able to settle enough to absorb all those new things school has to offer. When kids feel safe and settled, their brains are like sponges that can absorb a massive amount of new information.

So how do we help them settle their amazing brains as they transition out of your full-time care?

To this point in their life, your child’s relationship with you has been like the ground under their feet; constant, solid, essential to them knowing their place in the world, and taken completely for granted (as it should be!)  However, once they start school, they can learn to carry their relationship with you inside their mind and heart, knowing it can resume in real-time at the end of the school day. They can also learn there are other adults who they can trust to care for them, and that there are things they can learn to do for themselves. At the end of the day, they can come home and share all they have learned with you, and some of their worries too.

This is the essence of building independence.

I’ve put together a few tips to help build that “virtual” bond between you, so your little one can trust there is an Invisible String that connects you, even when you are not there in person.

Talk to your child about school using stories.

Tell them stories about your own experience, or about the experience of older children you know. The stories should include a struggle that your child can relate to (for example, being anxious when being dropped off) and how the child in the story overcame their worry. It should also include the excitement of learning to do things for themselves, such as swinging on the monkey bars, making new friends, or reading a whole book. 

Develop a parting routine.

Find a way to say goodbye that is playful and meaningful. You might consider writing them a little note each day, or drawing them a picture, putting it in an envelope and telling them to open it at recess. It might be that you tell them you love them, that you’ll be back, and you can’t wait to hear about their day. You might choose to recite a rhyme each morning, such as “I love you, you love me, have a great day and I’ll pick you up at three!” It might be you develop a secret handshake together. Whatever it is, do it every day. This consistent routine will be a comfort to them and help build trust in the process of separation.

Leave your child with a transition object.

If you can give your child something of yours, such as a scarf, they may be able to comfort themselves with it. Other ideas include a laminated photo of the family, or a special object like a stone or a miniature animal or angel. Whatever it is, remind them that they can use the object to connect with you even when you are not there in person.

Tell them that you are holding them in mind.

At the end of each day, tell them you were thinking of them while they were at school. You might tell them you were wondering what they were learning in science, or that you couldn’t wait to tell them the news that Nan was coming to stay. This reminds them they are in your thoughts even when you are not together which softens the sense of separation.

Help your child develop trust in their classroom teacher.

Your child’s teacher will be the main person providing comfort and care to your child in your absence. If your child can see that you have a positive relationship with their teacher, and that you speak about them with enthusiasm, they will get the signal that they can also trust this person. Encourage your child to draw a picture to bring for their teacher. Ask older kids to describe their favourite thing about their teacher, and pass this message on to your child. Place a drawing or photo of the teacher up on the fridge and refer to it with positivity and enthusiasm. Tell them that their teacher is going to LOVE that they are so (kind, good at cleaning up, enthusiastic about books, etc.). And most importantly, reach out to the teacher to let them know your child might need extra support with separation for a while. Work with the teacher as closely as possible in this transition period.

As you build this bridge of safety between home and school, your child will grow in their confidence to engage in school life without you. You can reinforce this confidence by expressing your pride and enthusiasm for their growing independence. Notice when they show more independence and tell them they are doing a great job!

Finally, if you are still finding separation challenging, seek support from a child therapist who can help you identify specific strategies for your child. In almost all cases, children can build their independence with little more than some good information, a bit of your patience, and your willingness to try some new things.

Freya Hanly

Psychologist

The Australian Childhood Trauma Group

NB: The Invisible String by Patrice Karst is a wonderful storybook to help children with separation from loved ones. It is highly recommended!

This piece was originally written for one of our school partners to include in their community newsletter.