“It’s too much for me, mama. I want to go home with you.”
My heart broke. There stood my son, chocking back tears, his big brown eyes pleading with me to hear his words. I knew in my heart that it was true; the transition from summer to grade one had been too much for him - too much, too fast. I could have made the transition easier. I could have eased him into the start of school. I could have prepared him better for the separation from me. I could have…but I didn’t.
I’ve spent my entire teaching career working with young children. As a teacher, I have supported many parents as they said goodbye to a child struggling with separation anxiety. As I immersed myself in the study of child development and learned more about what separation anxiety is and why it happens, I became better at supporting both parent and child through it. Today, the topic of separation anxiety is one that comes up frequently in my work with parents, and yet I didn’t anticipate it with my own son. Talk about a mom-fail.
If I’m being honest, it isn’t that I didn’t anticipate my child having trouble separating from me, it’s just that I didn’t anticipate it with this child. You see my daughter is the sensitive one. With her, I’m always mindful that transitions can be difficult. I need to protect quiet time in her day and, after we’ve been apart, ensure there is ample time for reconnection. It isn’t that my son doesn’t have these same needs; it’s just that he doesn’t seem to have them to the same extent. I was so focused on easing her back into school that I didn’t prepare him in the same way.
So this is where I found myself on the second day of school. My normally easy-going, roll-with-the-punches kind of kid needed me – he needed me to know that this was scary, that he missed me, that he didn’t yet feel secure with his teacher, that it was all too much.
Physical separation from mom and dad is hard for most children and especially alarming for young children. In fact, they are hard-wired to want to be close to us, where they feel safest. So, when school is back in session and separation from us is necessary, how can we help ease our children’s anxiety? Below I’ve listed a few of the things that have made the biggest difference in lessening my son’s anxiety (what we should have done from the start):
Be A Matchmaker
One of the best things we can do to help our children when separation from us is necessary, is to provide them with other secure adult attachments to hold onto in our place. The difficulty is that children don’t feel comfortable with adults they don’t know, and they aren’t supposed to - it’s nature’s way of keeping them safe. So, we parents have a key role in helping develop a strong relationship between our children and a new teacher or care-provider. Since the most basic form of attachment is likeness, identifying shared interests or activities between your child and their teacher is a great place to start.
I didn’t focus on this as I normally would because we already knew the teacher as he had taught my daughter a few years prior. I took for granted that my son would love him from the start, just as she had. What I should have done was help them get to know one another. I needed to do a little matchmaking.
It’s also important for our children to see that we like and trust their teachers. They need to know that we feel confident about leaving them in their care. Our children look to us to keep them safe; knowing that we are confident that their teacher or care-provider will do the same in our absence helps ease anxiety. It’s a transfer of trust between parent and teacher. This part we nailed from the get-go! But I took the transfer of trust one step further by taking my son’s hand in mine and transferring it to his teacher’s hand as we said good-bye. This physical act was really helpful for my son.
Hold Space for Tears
This might sound counterintuitive - why would we welcome tears when we are trying to ease separation anxiety? After all, adults often take tears to mean something is wrong. In actuality, it’s the most natural thing for a child to do when faced with something scary or something they cannot change.
But let’s be honest, it’s really hard to see our children upset. Like really hard. It tore me apart to see those big brown eyes filled with tears. But I know in my heart that I don’t need him not to cry. What I need to know is that there is a caring adult to help him through his tears in my absence - a parent-substitute, if you will. Rather than telling him not to cry or that there’s nothing to be afraid of, I need to know that there is someone there who will validate his feelings. And this is also what my son needs to allow him to feel safe and secure in his new relationship with his teacher and his new environment.
Bridge the Time Apart
For many young children, a six-hour school day is simply too long to be away from their parents, and it’s normal for them to be scared. We may not be able to reduce the time they are separated from us, but we can try and bridge the time we’re apart. Talking about when we’ll see them again and what we will do helps our children look toward when we’ll be together instead of focusing on time apart. I often leave a little note in their lunch box reminding them of what we will do when we see each other.
Providing our children with something symbolic of us to hold can also be really helpful. I made a little felt heart to tuck into my son’s pocket. Sometimes, I slip a photo of us together into his backpack or draw a heart on the palm of his hand. My daughter is bigger now but sometimes she’ll choose to wear my sweater because the smell reminds her of me.
Make Time for Connection
The transition from summer to back-to-school can be a big one. Simplifying our schedules whenever possible to make room for rest and connection is vital. We have to recognize when our children need a break….and when they just need YOU. One of the best things we can do for a child who is struggling to be away from us is to make more time to be together…or at least make the most of time together by providing them with our undivided attention when possible. By regularly filling our children’s ‘attachment bucket’, we help them grow into confident individuals who are okay to say goodbye to us. We can’t force development, but we can help it unfold by cultivating secure relationships and providing emotional safety for our children.
I would love to tell you that we put each of these things in place and drop-offs with our son have been a breeze ever since. But that’s not really how it works. Most days have been pretty smooth, but there are still days when it’s hard for him to say goodbye. He’s just little after all.
“The more immature and needing of care one is, the more stirred up by separation they can be.” - Dr. Deborah MacNamara
We need to stop trivializing separation anxiety in young children and expecting them to act like small adults. It’s natural for them to be fearful of leaving us and it’s natural for them to miss us. That being said, we can’t avoid some separation. What we can do is help our children with the separation by giving them a way of holding onto us and by helping them cultivate a strong relationship with a caring adult in our absence. Perhaps then saying goodbye wouldn’t be too much.