The start of the school year is a new experience, even for children who have been at school before. And parents, this will be a learning experience for you as well. Many of you may be apprehensive about separation; will your child be upset or protest your leaving? “Separation anxiety” seems to be one of these bugaboos that have become heavy with meaning. Where did this come from and why do parents worry about it?
First of all, it is only recently in modern times that we put children in groups at younger and younger ages, and then expected them to separate from their parents and/or caregivers. As soon as children are put together in groups we begin to think of it as school and expect them to behave accordingly. But young children are just beginning to develop the skills they will need to get along with other people. They must learn to share, take turns, tolerate frustration and control their impulses, among other things. It is a kind of learning that is very demanding, and children often need to feel the support of familiar and trusted people while they are still getting to know new adult authority figures. This is a process in which individual children may be in different places and respond differently. When children are in groups we begin to expect them to all be in the same place in their development and to comply with a uniform set of expectations. The expectations for behavior are often unrealistic for young children and some children may be readier to meet them than others.
What is this process like for parents? I have found that many of you feel as though this is more about you than about your children. You often think that your child’s reaction to separation is a test of your ability as a parent – if your child is having some difficulty it means you did something wrong. If there is no upset at your leaving, it means you are a success.
On the other hand, maybe you worry that any difficulty with separation means there is something wrong with your child, and the feeling that you are failing as a parent. These feelings can lead you to become overly invested in “making” separation happen by pushing your child forward. But the more you push the more your child clings, and this can turn into a power struggle which accomplishes nothing.
What to do? The first thing is to be aware of your own feelings so that you can put them aside and focus on what is going on with your child. A child’s protest in the form of crying or clinging is his way of saying he has some concern about the situation and is not quite ready to deal with it without you. What he needs is some reassurance (and so do you) that these feelings are OK, that he will be able to master the feelings and the situation. Your acceptance and reassurance makes the situation he is in less threatening.
The thing to remember is that this is a process which may take more – or less – time.
Many of you, who are working or have other time pressures, may not be able to give as much time as you would like to this process. That is a reality of life which children can learn to live with. This learning make take longer than we would like, but here, too, can be helped along by understanding and sympathizing with our children’s feelings – as well as our own.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.