Taking steps in development can mean new challenges and satisfactions. It also can mean giving up or letting go of earlier gratifications along with less age appropriate behavior. In a way this is true throughout life as hopefully we continue to grow as well as get older. The first steps in this process in one sense, is true of a baby’s first steps. When you start to walk you don’t get carried as much. But you have the pleasure that comes from finding you can move on your own.
School has started and for many children and parents this may be their first experience with a new kind of separation. Children will be staying in a new place with new adults in charge, without the presence of a parent or familiar caregiver. While some parents are apprehensive about this step, others say they are unconcerned since with both parents leaving for work every day their children are used to spending the day apart from them.
Starting school, however, is another matter. Children recognize that this is a new step away from parents bringing new expectations. Most children have some anxiety about taking this step, which is expressed by different children in different ways. Observing many children as I do, it is interesting to see the different kinds of reactions. Some children clearly show their anxiety, clinging to parents. Others cry in protest if a parent starts to leave. Still others seem stunned showing no emotion. Then there are children who are entranced by all the new and interesting things in the room and join in readily – then reality strikes and the reaction sets in later.
The phrase “separation anxiety” has been used freely to describe all this as if it was a special problem of sorts. Parents sometimes are distressed by children’s reactions as if they are somehow a reflection of insecurity, meaning that parents have failed in some way. Actually, children are expressing in individual ways the feelings they have about taking a big step in development. They are at a stage where they have been gaining new skills but others are not fully mastered. They are not totally confident that they will meet the expectations of these new adults and this new situation.
Think about what your own feelings might be starting a new job in a new line of work for which you have been preparing. New boss or supervisor, new work colleagues, surely at the least bring butterflies in the pit of the stomach. As adults we don’t cry, or try to leave – although we might want to. Maturity has given us tools with which to adapt to and master new situations.
Young children are in the process of developing new skills but they haven’t as yet fully acquired the tools they will need to master this new situation. Will they be expected to share everything? What will happen if they don’t like something? What if someone pushes or hits them? What if they hit or push someone? Young children are not yet fully in control of their impulses. They have not yet developed all the social skills necessary for successful functioning in a group.
The anxiety children feel is an expression of their apprehension about their ability to perform as expected. Mom or Dad may scold them when they misbehave but they are confident of their parents’ love and basic acceptance. It takes time to develop that same level of confidence in the new adults in their lives – namely teachers. It is the development of a relationship with a teacher that helps children feel comfortable in the knowledge that there is someone who can help them and accept them even if they are not perfect.
At the same time, as parents we are in the process of letting go of the delicious attachment of those first years. There are rewards and losses for us, too, in this process. If we can let go – rather than push away or hold tight – we are better able to help children deal with any sense of loss they may be having and to enjoy the rewards of the new steps they are taking.