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The Long Goodbye: Separation Anxiety

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Still sitting in your child's preschool class in October? Girlfriend, you're not alone.

separation anxiety at school

Dr. Wendy Walsh: This year I've become a permanent fixture in a first grade class -- and have the classic cold to prove it. Having done "the work" of separation in preschool and kindergarten, I thought we'd be long past screams and tantrums at the age of six, but all it took was a classroom composition without any close friends, and the tiny hands are tearing at my skirt again.

There are a number of schools of thought on how to handle separation anxiety in children. Many educators abhor the long, drawn-out, tearful goodbyes at the classroom door and prefer parents to bolt early, hoping the child will settle into the routine quickly. Psychologists who specialize in attachment think differently. Every child has his own unique journey from womb to dorm room, and along the way there may be plenty of slips backwards as separation anxiety waxes and wanes.

The complicated part of separation anxiety is that it belongs to two deeply intertwined psyches -- the child and the mother. If a mother holds any bit of ambivalence about the separation, be it a concern about the teacher, the child's ability to separate, or the safety of the school environment, that very perceptive little angel will source it out and respond to it. A child's survival is linked to Mommy's moods. Infants and small children become extremely intelligent at sensing and reflecting a parent's emotional life. Think about the last time you tried to hide a bad mood that started over a crisis at work. I'll bet that no matter how sweet you acted toward your kids, they fell into uncanny moodiness. The parent/child connection is so intense that children often act out the emotions of their parents.

If it's any consolation, remember that separation anxiety is often a sign of a healthy attachment, and that's good. Small children who are too "independent" may have trouble developing and maintaining peer relationships. And an avoidant attachment style can lead to a host of personality dysfunctions.

Here are a few tips to get you through this very sensitive stage:

1. Don't get angry with your child.

2. Acknowledge his/her feelings and offer empathy and understanding.

3. Assure your child (over and over) that Mommy always comes back.

4. No matter your child's age, use transitional objects -- Mommy's pheromone-infused T-shirt, a family photo, a beloved teddy bear.

5. If your school allows, remain in the classroom every morning and decrease the duration of your stay each day. The younger the child, the longer this process may take.

6. When you are in the classroom, do not engage or interact with your child. You are only there as a secure presence, not as a playmate.

7. Do not reward your child's tears or screams with a trip home. Unless they are physically ill, maintain a consistent schedule that includes a regular start time and end time.

8. When you do leave your child, always say goodbye. Don't slip out the back door, unless you want to create mistrust.

9. When you leave, remind your child that you'll be thinking about them while you are separated, and that you will be so excited to see them after school.

10. Reward your child for "successful" separations with twenty minutes of undivided "mommy/child special time" every afternoon. This one-on-one attention can be very satiating and help your child learn to be a little more emotionally self-sufficient.

At every milestone in a young child's life, whether it be weaning, sleeping through the night, or advancing from diapers, I try to remind myself that no American child goes to college drinking from a baby bottle, wearing diapers, or using a pacifier. At some point, every child will learn to separate. Even my first grader. But for now, I'm forfeiting my morning gym routine and doing a lot of stapling and cutting for the teacher. My butt may be expanding, but so is my child's confidence, so it's worth it.

next: Help! My Brain Hurts!
6 comments so far | Post a comment now
Wendi September 30, 2009, 8:58 AM

Well I just dropped off my 3yr son this morning for his first day of preschool. He was so excited to go. I am happy he is excited to try new things and that he did not have any anxiety about it at all. He pretty much met the teacher, looked around the class and then went off to play outside with the kids. Of course I am dying inside that my little guy is growing up, but I am trying very hard not to show it to him. I want him to see this as a positive thing.

Roschelle September 30, 2009, 1:15 PM

although it was so many moons ago, I can still remember my 17 year old son’s first day at daycare. He was all revved up and ready with his Barney backpack and little slugger baseball cap. He didn’t start sinking until we walked in. I think he realized I wasn’t going to be there. I was in worse shape than him but I couldn’t let him see that.

I called throughout the day and could tell by the tone of voice of the “heifers” answering the phone…my calls were very annoying to them.

Needless to say, due to their behavior plus other things I was extremely displeased with…we opted for another daycare

Things went fine after that. Just remember new mommies….you’re little angels are generally in good hands.

Just make sure the daycare is supportive of you and your child. Both of whom are definitely dealing with some separation anxiety.

Stop Anxiety May 15, 2010, 7:57 AM

Definitely agree with what you stated. Your explanation was certainly the easiest to understand. I tell you, I usually get irked when folks discuss issues that they plainly do not know about. You managed to hit the nail right on the head and explained out everything without complication. Maybe, people can take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thanks

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