It’s that time again – back to school. The start of the school year is a new beginning, for many children a new classroom, a new teacher, for some even a new school. For very young children who are just starting nursery school – or even a pre-nursery group – there will be many new things to learn, for parents, too.
Children may be apprehensive about the start of the new school year – about the unknown and the challenges they may face. Parents of children starting school for the first time have some anxiety about separation; will their child be upset or protest their leaving? “Separation anxiety” seems to be one of these ideas that have become fraught with meaning. Where did this come from and why do parents worry about it?
It is only recently that we put children in groups at younger and younger ages, and then expect them to separate from their mothers or caregivers. In ancient times babies were sent away from home not to return until they were seven – supposedly, the age of reason. But in this age of psychology we presume to know more about where children are at various stages in their development.
As soon as children are put together in groups, we begin to think of it as school and expect them to behave accordingly. But young children are just beginning to develop the skills they will need to get along with other people. They must learn to share, take turns, tolerate frustration and control their impulses, among other things. It is a kind of learning that is very demanding, and children often need to feel the support of familiar and trusted people while they are still getting to know new adult authority figures.
This is a process in which individual children may be in different places and respond differently. The expectations for behavior are often unrealistic for young children and some children may be readier to meet them than others.
Mothers often think that a child’s reaction to separation is a test of their ability as a parent – if your child is having some difficulty it means you did something wrong. If there is no upset at your leaving, it means you are a success. Or the opposite – any difficulty with separation means there is something wrong with your child. Mothers ask me all the time if their children’s protests are “normal”.
A child’s protest in the form of crying or clinging is his way of saying he has some concern about the situation and is not quite ready to deal with it without you. What he needs is some reassurance that these feelings are o.k., that he will be able to master the feelings and the situation and that you are there to help him while he does. Your acceptance and reassurance make the situation he is in less threatening. This is a process which may take more – or less – time.
Despite protests, children are able to master some feelings of anxiety. The challenge for you as a parent is to make a judgment about where your own child is in this process of mastery. Often, a teacher can help you make that judgment by letting you know what happens when you leave.
Working parents may not be able to give as much time as they would like to this process. That is a reality of life which children can learn to live with. This learning may take longer than we would like, but can be helped by understanding and sympathizing with our children’s feelings – as well as our own.