Separation Anxiety


Starting School: Separation Anxiety

    The child may feel afraid that s/he may not be safe here without the parent, anxious about self control (without the familiar safeguard of the parental presence); s/he may even wonder if s/he's still loved, or feel angry about having to endure this new anxiety. The sadness at being parted for awhile from the parent may come rushing over the child at the moment when s/he says goodbye at the school gate—and all of this at the same time as wanting to come and having fun once s/he's there!

    For example: Mother may, to her surprise, have many of the same negative feelings that the child experiences, especially if she does not have a full-time job outside the home. She has arrived at this choice carefully, sure that Montessori school is just what the child needs—and perhaps looking forward to a little freedom for herself, for the first time in three years. Yet, when the first day comes she too is filled with uneasiness, especially if the child looks downcast or even cries a little. Do the teachers here really know what they're doing? Maybe this child is too young, after all. Underneath that layer of feelings may be some deeper fears, not even conscious: this child who has defined her identity as "mother" is growing up, so who will she be now? If mother works at home, the house will seem so empty while the child is at school; she misses the child and feels a bit lonely already. Will she still be needed? Has she done her job well enough that her child will "measure up" to the others? Why can't her husband understand how upset she is about this, how confused and uncertain she feels at times? Stay-at-home dads are also not exempt from these feelings.

    Even working parents can feel the wrench of the heart brought on by this ambivalence. A mother's decision to leave a young child and go out to work is a hard one to begin with.   Even if she  finds  the most wonderful of substitutes to replace her as the daytime caregiver, she may harbor a small residue of guilty feelings; if they were not resolved at the time of initial separation, no matter how long buried, they are likely to reappear when the child starts school.

    The first separation of parent and child may become the prototype for all those that follow in the child's lifetime—so acknowledging the feelings of fear, sadness, and even anger that can be associated with separation may be the most important task for the parent-child partners to accomplish all year. If these negative feelings are denied and suppressed now, they may cloud the emotional life of the child for years to come, an impediment to healthy development and the ability to learn. If a child's heart is home with the parent (even if that parent works outside the home now), the mind and body can't take full advantage of being at school.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

The child may. . .

  1. Say s/he doesn't want to go to school (though the staff may report s/he seems perfectly happy after you leave)

  2. Resist getting ready in the morning (create a conflict about what to wear—or simply  dawdle unmercifully)

  3. Cry when the parent leaves school (or seem glued to the teacher's side for a little while)

  4. Complain that s/he has no friends at school

  5. Complain that other children hurt her/him

  6. Complain that the teacher "doesn't help me"

  7. Complain of a tummy-ache before school

  8. Get angry with parents or siblings (about very little)

  9. Refuse to take off his/her coat at school

  10. Wander instead of choosing something to do in class

  11. Avoid the teachers during class

  12. Withdraw into thumb sucking (or wet pants)

  13. When the parent arrives at pick-up time: run away, hide in the tunnel, or insist s/he wants to stay and play (Message: I waited for you all day, now it's your turn to wait for me!)

The parent may. . .

  1. Find reasons for being late to school (Secret message: I don't really want you to go or School is not really important)

  1. Need to "explain" the child to teachers (Her needs are really very special, you know)

  1. Feel overly critical of teachers, or disliked (No wonder the child doesn't want to go; they don't like her/me or If the place were really OK, s/he'd want to go)

  1. Feel ashamed or angry if the child cries (Good children [the children of good mothers] don't cry)

  1. Try to leave school without saying goodbye (I don't want to have to deal with this...why isn't s/he like other children?)

  1. Say goodbye several times, prolong the moment of parting (You won't really be safe without me or When I'm upset, you should be, too)

  1. Want to stay with the child at school beyond the first few days (You can't make it here without me)

  1. Feel frustrated at not knowing what the child does at school each day (Have you stopped loving mother?)

  1. Ask teachers "how s/he did" each day (Are you keeping something from me?)

  1. Get angry with husband, child, or self—about very little

What To Do?

  1. 1.Be prepared. Know in advance that some of these feelings are natural, and know their signs. You decided your child was ready and took care to choose a school you trust, so relax and rely on the judgment you made at a less-trying moment to carry you through the separation period.

  1. 2.Decide ahead on how you will handle the first few days, and let both child and teachers know. If you plan to come with the child to get him/her started, either stay all day or take the child with you when you must go. Sit in the play yard or classroom as an observer. By the third day, bring something of your own to work on and retire to the office to spend the time. Let the child know that the next day you will drop him/her off and come back when it is time to go home. Your goal here is to transfer trust and authority to the school—so the child can know s/he is safe there.

If you can't stay with the child, communicate the way it has to be—and why. It may help to emphasize when you will be back to pick him/her up and what the two of you will do together after that.