Many tears are shed at the beginning of a new school year, as parents and little ones adapt to the process of separation. There are a few things we can do to help smooth out this ritual, as well as a few things we can understand to help make it feel easier.
First off, a little background on separation anxiety. When you drop off your preschooler on that very first day of preschool, and she spends the first ten minutes wrapped around your leg begging you not to leave her, it isn’t necessarily a sign that you’ve selected the wrong school, or that you’re a bad parent, or that she’s developed an insecure attachment. It likely just means that she’s a normal three year-old who’s aware enough to be nervous about a new situation.
Separation anxiety is a normal part of child development. It starts off around eight months, when an infant becomes aware of the fact that she is a separate being from her parents. Along with that comes an awareness of strangers and new situations. It is quite normal for an infant to prefer those peoples and situations that she is familiar with. That is, after all, a deep biological safety mechanism that has served to protect and perpetuate the human species.
While separation anxiety generally peaks and then declines somewhere between 18 months and two years, it is still quite normal for young children to exhibit some of the same telltale signs — clinginess, crying, withdrawal — at three, or even six years old. Individual personalities are more prone to this type of anxiety, and major life events (new siblings, moving, family loss, etc.) can cause a resurgence as well.
The onset of separation anxiety may not be able to be controlled, but there are things that can be done to successfully navigate this developmental challenge.
The most important thing a child needs to learn in order to overcome separation anxiety is that you will leave, but you will always come back, and that those rituals can be predictable. When children know they can depend on you, that trust builds security in the new situation. As you remain consistent, you’ll notice the anxiety decreasing with each repetition.
Be consistent about the way you leave. Always say goodbye with words, with hugs, or with a gesture. It may be tempting to sneak out of the classroom while your child’s back is turned, but that serves only to build mistrust. Help your child to understand that you will say goodbye, and that you’ll always come back.
Be consistent in the way you return, particularly when the situation is still new. Prepare your child for any changes so that the return is still predictable and consistent. If you’re having a friend pick up your child, let her know in advance and make it clear how soon she’ll be back with you. To a nervous young child, having someone else pick her up suddenly causes her to wonder if she’ll be staying the rest of the day with this person or just the next five minutes.
If you are particularly concerned that your child will fall apart on that first morning at daycare or that first day of kindergarten, talk to your child’s teacher or caregiver ahead of time. Create a plan together so that the both of you can proceed with confidence. When my oldest started preschool he was struggling with separation anxiety. While he was very excited to start this new adventure, I had a feeling he might balk when it came time to actually walk in those doors.
I called his teacher ahead of time and we talked about my concerns and what her preferred way of handling this potential scenario would be. We both agreed that it would be best to keep the goodbye short and upbeat. If he became emotional when it was time to part ways (which he did) the teacher would scoop him up and take him to the classroom (which she did). Having that plan ahead of time helped both of us understand what our roles would be and lessened my own anxiety as I knew that she was prepared to help him succeed (which he did!).
A child’s distressing response to separation can be compounded if the adults around him are confused and uncertain as well. Have a plan in place so that you aren’t left improvising on the spot, each of you fumbling as you try to discern what the other wants you to do.
Some children find great security in having a transitional object to bring with them during your separation. It may be a favorite blanket or soft toy your child often snuggles with. These objects are soothing and help combat anxiety.
Sometimes, I give a nervous child an object I’m wearing, such as a bracelet, as a type of transitional object or a reminder that I’ll be back for him. In fact, I’ve been known to intentionally wear a bracelet I can part with on a day when I might anticipate some anxiety. Slipping it on my child’s wrist gives him a tangible reminder of me as well as a physical reminder that I promise to come back.
For school-age children who may not want to head to school dragging a blanket or who might be too distracted by one of your own trinkets, consider making or buying a special school-appropriate item to remind them of you and how much you love them. It may be a new watch (which also increases the predictability of when you’ll be back), a child-sized bracelet, or a smooth worry stone to keep in a pocket. Having a physical item to hold on to gives a degree of strength and serenity to a new and stressful situation.
As I mentioned before, children aren’t the only ones who suffer from separation anxiety. Many parents become emotional at those first separations as well. Sometimes there’s even an element of separation anxiety-anxiety as a parent becomes worried about the possibility of a child’s meltdown at separation. I’ve certainly been there. Talk about a ball of nerves!
Children are very susceptible to our own emotions. If we are worried or emotional, or if we talk too much about that “big” first day, our nervous energy will be added to their own. Not only will it confirm to them that their own fears are founded, but it adds another element of insecurity as the source they look to for courage and comfort seems to be in short supply.
It helps to remind ourselves that this is a normal part of healthy child development. We’re doing our jobs as parents as we help them build the skills necessary to succeed in life. Just like when they learned to walk, it can make your heart hurt to see them struggle, but the only way for them to succeed is for you to give love and encouragement as they step out on their own.
Contributing Author: Amanda Morgan is a graduate of Utah State University who holds a BA in both elementary and early childhood education and an MS in childhood development. She is a mom, educator and writer for her blog Not Just Cute, which focuses on the development of the whole child. Amanda is also the author of the ebook, Parenting with Positive Guidance.