Q: How do you help a 3 1/2 -year-old adjust to his mom going back to work? He's having a tough time.
-- Sandra Oriolo, Baltimore
A: This is a tough situation no matter what. Parents who have lived through it say two essential factors help:
Allow for a gradual transition, and make sure you have the utmost confidence in your day-care provider.
Next, brace yourself for a few rough weeks. It's normal to expect your child to howl when you leave but then to settle down and play happily 15 minutes later.
"Find out what happens after you leave," says work-family consultant Anne Weisberg of Scarsdale, N.Y., "but don't be surprised when the crying still tears your heart out."
Unfortunately, guilt just comes with the territory.
"The problem of separation is often more difficult for the mother than it is for the child," says Cheryl Foster, a parent from Middletown, R.I.
There is no way to say exactly how long the transition should take, but with a change this significant, it is normal to expect the child to have from a couple of weeks to a month's worth of adjustment difficulty.
"A lot depends on the past experiences of the child," says Dr. Louise J. Kaplan, a child psychologist in private practice in New York City. "Has he played with other children or has he ever been left with a sitter?"
Age is also a factor. At 3 1/2 , a healthy child who has had some experiences away from Mom should have an easier adjustment than a 2 or 2 1/2 -year-old.
At 2, a child is just beginning to work out a psychological separation from his or her mother, so it is a particularly difficult time, says Dr. Kaplan, author of "Oneness and Separateness: From Infant to Individual" (Touchstone Books, $12, $16 Canada).
"Three is one of the best ages to pick because the child is ready to be with other children his age and be excited about learning new things," she says.
At the other end of the spectrum is the child who seems terrified dTC of Mom leaving or of being in the new day-care setting.
"Clearly you have to be on the lookout for that kind of signal because it's a sign of something unhealthy going on when you're not there," says Ms. Weisberg, author of "Everything a Working Mother Needs to Know" (Doubleday, $14.95, $18.95 Canada).
"Feeling confidence in your child-care provider is essential."
Ambivalence about the day-care situation should not be ignored.
"Ask yourself if you would feel comfortable in this place all day," advises Gail Miniutti, an early-childhood specialist who counsels parents with Work/Family Directions, a consulting group based in Boston, Mass.
"Listen to your gut feeling, because it can be a red flag, and you should pay attention to it."
The parent's confidence, or lack of it, will be communicated to a child, as one experienced day-care provider has witnessed many times.
"If the mother tells the child she knows he will be happy and goes out with a real confident attitude rather than letting the child know she feels guilty, it really seems to work out much better," says Chris Smythe of San Jose, Calif.
The worst case is the parent who hangs around nervously waiting for the temper tantrum to erupt.
"The child looks to you to see how to react," Ms. Miniutti says.
"You need to reassure yourself that the child won't forget you, and it's healthy for him to form trust in others."
Here are some practical tips from parents:
* After an extended time at home, many parents find it easier to build up to a full day away. "Children adjust gradually much better," says Sue Creighton, a mother from San Jose, Calif.
* Visit the home or school several times for short periods before leaving for a whole day, suggests Heather Lynch of Warwick, R.I. "And don't be late to pick him up!" Ms. Lynch insists.
* "It helped when I took my children to work with me so they could see where I was going," says Laurie Becker of Larkspur, Calif.
* Remember that young children feel more secure with a predictable routine, says Ms. Miniutti of Work/Family Directions. "Talk the night before about what's going to happen tomorrow," she says.
* A family "crying time" helped one working mother of four from Miami, Fla. "I would sit with them and say, "Rather than cry when Mommy's not here, let's cry together,' " Denise Mixson says. "They would think that was really funny and giggle, and I would have no problem."
While a reporter at the Miami Herald, Beverly Mills developed this column after the birth of her son, now 6. Ms. Mills and her husband currently live in Raleigh, N.C., and also have a 4-year-old daughter.