Taking Steps

A mother came to see me because her child was having difficulty separating from her in school.  The little girl clung to her mother at the door and refused to go into the room.  When cajoled inside, she would not leave her mother’s side.  Any attempt to have her join the other children was met with resistance and at times, tears.

Although the almost three year old child was starting school for the first time, the mom was puzzled and deeply upset by the behavior.  Her daughter was excited about starting school, and there had never been a problem with separation, either with the parents going out or with the child staying with grandparents or friends.  The mother experienced the child’s behavior as a failure.  She was not only frustrated but feeling that she herself had failed in some way if her child was too insecure to have her leave.  She compared the situation to others in the class who seemingly were not experiencing any difficulty.

The latest focus on the importance for children of experiencing failure can be confusing for parents.  Parents have been blamed for being over-protective, promoting dependency in their children that results in lack of confidence and fear of failure.  Yet one of the most challenging aspects of child-rearing is determining when children are ready to take next steps in development and how to best help them master those steps.

The questions begin from infancy on about whether or not certain expectations are appropriate.  Parents ask, “Should she be able to fall asleep on her own?  Is he ready to give up the bottle?  Is it time to start toilet training?”  Often parents try to answer such questions “by the book,” which is not always helpful as individual children differ from the hypothetical child in the book and don’t necessarily follow theoretical guidelines.

Development doesn’t move upward in a straight line like a staircase.  Most often it is two steps forward and one step back as children try out new skills and then retreat temporarily into behavior that feels more familiar and secure.  As children grow the steps may start to seem more daunting as they struggle between the wish to grow up and the wish to remain dependent.  Some steps may seem more challenging than others for any individual child, and which steps those are can vary from child to child – even within the same family.

In the days ahead with school starting, there are bound to be numerous repetitions of the experience related above.  Even for children who are not starting school for the first time, there can be anxiety about a new teacher, new classroom, new classmates and new expectations.  The comparison for parents might be starting a new job, or perhaps having to participate in a new group situation – even one of your choice.

Does the behavior of the child described mean mom herself has failed by making the child overly-dependent and fearful?  Not likely.  What the behavior tells us is that this child for whatever reason is having a hard time taking this next step.  The question is not whose fault that is but rather how can we help her take that step.

At times parents or teachers think that the way to do that is to go “cold turkey.”  That is, the mother should just leave and let the child cry it out.  The usual follow-up is a mother being told the child was fine as soon as mom left.  That depends on what one means by fine.  Yes, children may “suck it up” and seem accepting but there is a question as to whether that leads to growth or instead to some other expression of the unresolved anxiety.

The fact is that growth is a process and in this case the child can be helped to grow into the next step rather then taken out of the situation or forced into it. The fact that it is harder than expected means the child may need more time and support than expected to turn it into a success experience rather than a failure.  If mom stays longer than other mothers, giving the child time to get to know the classroom, the other children, and especially the teachers her daughter will begin to feel more comfortable about her mother leaving.

Perhaps the most important ingredient here is the reassurance the mother needs, which enables her then to be reassuring to the child.  If mom feels confidence about her child’s abilities, her child will feel that, too.


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