The Sides of Separation

From the first days of nursery school to the first days of college, parents and children are confronted with various feelings, and manifestations of those feelings, brought about by separation.  Children of all ages may experience some anxiety about managing on their own.  Young children are still struggling to control their impulses and may need a parent’s presence to feel secure.  Older children leaving home – perhaps for the first time – may experience their own anxiety about managing on their own as homesickness. 

On the other side, parents of young children starting school may worry about whether anyone else will attend to their child’s needs as they would – children worry about that, too.  Children’s protests about parents leaving them with new people in a new situation often take the form of crying and upset, at times even striking out, which alarms parents and causes them considerable concern about their children’s well-being.

Generally, children’s protesting behavior around separation gets the most attention.  Their crying, whether in anger or pathos, elicits the wish to comfort from parents and teachers.  At times, a different point of view may emerge between parents and teachers about the best way to handle the situation.  Teachers may think a child will be fine if the parent just leaves, while a parent may see the child as needing her continued presence.  These roles are sometimes reversed with a parent feeling the answer is to let the child “cry it out” and it is the teacher who believes the parent is still needed.      

Although it is the overt upsets that get the most attention, when observing pre-school groups one can see the various ways children deal with the feelings aroused by the separation from a parent or familiar caregiver.  Children are dealing not only with those feelings but also with the behavior of numerous other children and the expectations of unfamiliar adults.  The way they meet these challenges is reflected in their behavior.

Some children deal with the situation by removing themselves from the group.  It is not unusual to see a child go off and sit in a corner.  In a recent observation, a little girl removed herself from the activity that way but clearly continued to watch carefully everything that was going on.  When the children were asked to put things away she rejoined the group to cooperate and then went back to her spot until the next time the request was made.

In another group, a little boy sat himself apart from the other children while participating fully in the activity.  He watched, seemingly astonished by the more active and impulsive behavior of some of the other boys.  In that particular group, many of the children seemed unsettled, having difficulty managing high activity levels – one of the numerous challenges of functioning in a group setting.

In still another group, a more obvious separation scenario took place between a noticeably pregnant mother and her son.  The mother seemed clearly prepared to stay and walked right over to a chair set up for her while the boy on his own hung up his jacket and joined the group.  He seemed most competent, participating fully in the activity until his mother suddenly decided to leave without a word.  At that point the child broke down completely, crying pitifully and inconsolably – no resemblance to the formerly competent little boy.  The mother, for her part, returned looking defeated and depressed.

In situations like this one, mothers invariably wonder why their own child is not able to succeed in separating from them as it seems to them other children do.  But the real point here is that separation is a developmental step which children deal with in different ways.  When children don’t openly cry and protest that doesn’t mean they are not struggling to master the same feelings and behavior, each in his or her own way.  For all children, the presence of a parent serves as a check on their behavior

The absence of protest does not mean that some children are further ahead.  It just means they don’t show their feelings in the same way.