Tuesday, July 30, 2013


School is starting soon,  and there’s excitement in the air!  After all, Explorer is the "Actual Happiest Place On Earth," right?  Parents, kids and teachers are all looking forward to starting another wonderful year.

But let’s be honest:  some parents may already be feeling the first twinges of anxiety about leaving their child at school. If you are feeling this way, don’t think you’re alone! 

Separation is a complex process for children and parents. Each child and each parent is unique, and will experience separation in a different way. Many of our families will have no separation issues at all. But it’s not at all uncommon for some children and some parents to feel anxious about saying goodbye at first. But remember, your teachers have lots of experience helping families through this.

We’ve learned that there are certain things parents can do to help their children and themselves through the process of learning to say goodbye. While there are no quick fixes for separation anxiety or most other developmental phases, adults can learn to do certain things to make things a bit easier.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

-Talk to your teacher if you are worried about this, or about anything else. It’s our job to help you and your child settle into school.

-Realize that most children, from toddlerhood on, benefit in many, many ways from attending a developmentally appropriate preschool program. Even if there is some anxiety and discomfort related to separation, this is often an important part of development.

-Often, the parent’s anxiety is much greater than the child’s.  It’s not uncommon for a child to pick up on the parent’s worry, and then become upset, even if they would have been just fine otherwise. So it’s important for parents to pay attention to their OWN feelings and acknowledge them. Working through our own emotions is one way to avoid passing on vague feelings of anxiety to your child. I think children are happiest when they are allowed to experience their own feelings, but are not entangled in the complicated feelings of adults.

-It’s unpredictable: we can’t accurately predict if a child will be upset by separation on any particular day.  Children surprise us all the time. Children who have been happy and confident at school sometimes suddenly begin feeling anxious about saying goodbye. This is usually just an offshoot of the child’s current brain development:  as children become more aware of their world and of themselves, they sometimes develop new and unexpected emotional responses that are unlike how they have responded previously. When a child develops a new and unexpected level of separation anxiety, it’s best for parents to be calm and supportive, and to realize it is probably temporary. And sometimes kids we think are going to have a problem turn out to be just fine when saying goodbye. It’s best to try to be open minded and let your child feel whatever they feel.

-The strong emotions of parenthood can sneak up adults as well.  Remember:  separation distress is often more related to parents’ feelings than to the child.  We parents can feel overwhelmed without warning sometimes, even if our child is doing just fine.  Be prepared to let the feelings flow, in yourself and in your child.

-Try not to be disappointed or upset if things are tough at times:  I’ve learned over the years that when children (or grownups) struggle a little, it’s a sure sign that they are learning and growing. Instead of fighting the difficult times, it’s best to embrace them and work through them together, and always look for signs of growth that result.

-We can't know how long it will take a child to work through separation difficulties. This can vary widely, and we need to give our children the time they need.

-Think about the messages that you ultimately want to give your child. Of course we want them to feel loved and supported, so we want to be responsive when they are upset. But we also want to avoid giving them messages such as: 
“It’s the end of the world when I’m upset!” or
“I can only trust Mom to take care of me!” or
“The world is a scary and overwhelming place!” or
“I can’t handle my big feelings!”
So we have to be careful to convey to our children that we have confidence in them, and that we trust the teachers and other parents at school. It’s also important to avoid “rescuing” them. Our children are always noticing subtle changes in our tone of voice, facial expression, or body language, as well as our choice of words.  Ask yourself if you are communicating confidence or insecurity to your child by your nonverbal and verbal communication. Even if you’re feeling a little unsure yourself, your child will feel more confident when you make a conscious effort to behave confidently.

-Practice saying something like, "I know you will have a good time at school when you're ready. Your teacher and your friends can help you if you feel sad, and remember, I always come back for you!" 

-Focus on the positive aspects of school.  Help your child think about the toys, the friends, and the activities that he or she looks forward to.  

-It’s ok to cry. Kids AND Parents have permission to cry whenever they need to. It is an important way to express ourselves, to relieve tension, and to work through emotions.  Adults are programmed to react strongly to children crying, but sometimes we need to suppress our urges to “try to get them to stop.” I often hold a child’s hand and tell them it’s ok to cry until they’re all done, and I let them know I’m there to help them. This is often the best way to show support and to help the child through a difficult moment.

-It’s usually best to say a simple goodbye.  Make sure the teacher or another parent is available to help your child, then remind the child that you’ll be back, say goodbye with a smile,  and JUST GO.  Dragging out goodbyes is usually the worst thing to do. It's never a good idea to change your mind and come back for one more hug. This is torture for your child.  With some of the youngest toddlers, parents and I may decide to try working on separation in a gradual progression. With other young toddlers, it seems that the most helpful way is to make a “clean break” and just have the parent say a brief and confident goodbye and leave them on my lap. I’ve found that with one year olds and young two year olds, the best approach may vary, based on the individual child’s temperament and level of development. But with the older children, a simple goodbye is usually best, no matter how the child is feeling at the moment. The most important thing is to have trust in the teacher and confidence in your child. 

-Remember: your choice to enroll in a good preschool will offer many rewards for your child and for yourself.  Don’t let the normal process of separation anxiety cause you to doubt your parenting choices. And remember, we’re all in this together. Sometimes the best remedy for separation anxiety is going out for coffee with another preschool parent! 

See you at school!

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