Not long ago I wrote about my observation of a preschool group in which a very pregnant mom and her not yet three-year-old son were having some difficulty with separation. The little boy was not clinging to his mom, who walked right over to a chair that was waiting for her while he, seeming very competent, hung up his jacket and took a spot near the other children there.
The mom took out something to read and the child, paying no attention to her participated fully in the activity the teacher was leading. At a certain point, the mother got up and left the room without letting the child know she was leaving. When he became aware of the fact that she was gone, everything about him changed. He began weeping inconsolably and was no longer able to relate to anything that was going on in the group or to anything the teacher said.
When the mother returned, the child was unable to return to his former level of functioning. Sitting on the floor alongside her chair, even after a considerable length of time he was barely able to control his sobs and participated only in a half-hearted way in the activity that was going on. The mother on her part, now looked worried and dejected, clearly disturbed by what had occurred.
Not long after that, the mother asked to see me and I then met with her. As expected, she wanted to discuss what she saw as her child’s inability to separate from her. She explained that she was expecting twins in a few months and felt under great pressure to resolve certain issues before then. She knows she will not be as available to her son as she is now and has been trying to prepare him for the fact that she will not be able to take him to school each time as she does now.
She worries about other things too, such as toilet training, and moving him into a real bed, again thinking about what the reality will be once the babies arrive. Seeing the way he reacts now when she leaves makes her worry even more about how he will cope later. She is distressed because she had prepared him for her leaving the room and yet he didn’t seem to understand.
I pointed out to the mother that right now he is dealing with the present reality, which is already she is not available to him in the same way as before. Her pregnancy makes it impossible for her to pick him up or hold him in the same way. Also, her own feelings about what it will be like with three children instead of one are certainly preoccupying her emotionally.
When the babies come there will be a new reality to which they will all have to adjust. There is no way for her to prepare her son to deal with that now. Instead, her own pressure to have him separate in school as preparation for what may happen later, seems to be creating its own difficulty with which he has to deal. I urged the mother that she not think she has to deal now with every issue that may arise later.
As we went over the various issues that might arise, it was clear that she had a plan to solve the reality issues, such as someone who will bring him to school. I suggested she tell her son that she understands his worries about her leaving and that she is going to continue to stay as long as he needs her.
The other day at school, the teacher told me with great pleasure that the mom was now able to leave the room upon arrival and the child has been fine. I bumped into the mother who seemed transformed, telling me that it seemed to just happen that her child was fine about her leaving.
The seeming magic was not in the words, it was in the mom’s changed attitude. Feeling reassured herself, she was able to reassure her son that he would be fine.