The school year is beginning and many of you have young children who are just starting nursery school – or even a pre-nursery group. A mom called me recently worrying in advance about “separation anxiety”. She was concerned, as many mothers seem to be, that her child would be upset when it was time to separate, and would not “let her leave”. Other mothers who have already found this happening, question if this means there is a “problem”. “Separation anxiety” seems to be one of those bugaboos that have become heavy with meaning.
Why does this loom so large in mothers’ minds? On a practical level, many of you are working and look forward to your child being productively engaged while you are as well. Beyond that, separation is a step toward independence — your child is growing up. The beginning of more freedom for mom! But that can be experienced as a double-edged sword. Another cut in the umbilical cord. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of those baby years when everything is mommy, mommy, mommy.
Children may feel two ways about growing up – just as we do. So there are concerns on both sides about next steps. Mother and child are both not quite sure if they can make it. There are challenges here for both. Children are just beginning to develop the skills they need to get along successfully with others. They are learning to share, take turns, control their impulses and “use their words”, among other things. They may be a little concerned about their ability to do all this without mom or a familiar adult there to help.
Mothers are often concerned about the same thing. You worry about whether your children will “measure up”. Will they meet expectations, behave in ways that you (or others) think they should? And if they don’t, is that a reflection on you as a mother? Or does it mean that your children are not developing as they should? These feelings on both sides get expressed one way or another in the separation process, sometimes in children’s tears of protest, or in a mother’s uncertainty about letting go.
The trouble is that this normal developmental step has been mystified as “separation anxiety”. The name itself makes it seem as if something is terribly wrong – as though if a child doesn’t just happily say goodby at the door he is not well adjusted. As if separation is a test of your ability as a mother: if your child is finding it hard, that means you did something wrong. If there is no upset , it means you are a success.
In reality, the term “separation anxiety” is a description of a usual developmental step in which children become increasingly aware of being a separate person from mom. Why anxiety? Because being attached to mom has both benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand your needs are met and you are taken care of. But on the other hand, you may want to do things that mom doesn’t want you to do and might make her angry. The conflict about being dependent or independent often continues throughout life. But for little children it is a new experience and may cause anxiety.
Some children may feel more anxiety than others, or at different points in their development than others. Not everyone is in the same place at the same time just because adults have decided to put children in “separation groups” at ever earlier ages.
The question is: if this is a developmental bump for your own child, how can you best help him or her over it?
Perhaps most useful is the recognition that your child’s tears or protests when you leave do not mean that something bad is happening. The fact that your child cries does not mean you are doing a bad thing – even though a child’s cry may feel accusatory. She is saying something about herself – not about you. What she may be saying is that she needs some reassurance, not just that you’ll be back for her, but that she is going to be o.k. without you. Children are often further upset by their own emotions, so it helps them to know that it’s all right if they miss mom and that they will feel better soon. If you are upset, it confirms to your child that there is something to be upset about. If you are not worried, that helps her not worry. Your acceptance and reassurance makes the situation feel less threatening.
Of course, there are times when a child’s upset is telling you that the separation is really too hard at this particular time in her development. It can be challenging for a parent to determine whether or not a child can master these feelings or if a familiar person needs to continue to be there. What can help is learning how well your child is able to regroup after you leave.
We all gain strength from finding we can master difficult situations, and the same is true for our children. So even when your child is upset, finding that he can overcome those feelings will help him grow. Sometimes when you hear that your child has settled down after you leave, it can feel like manipulation – “he was just doing that to get me to stay”. Yes, your child may be trying to get you to stay, but that doesn’t mean that his feelings aren’t genuine, that he isn’t really worried about your leaving.
It’s important to remember that this is a process which may take more – or less – time. Building a relationship with a new person – in this case the teacher – is what helps children accept the separation from parent or caregiver. As the parent, you (with the help of the teacher), can make the judgment about where your own child is. Many of you who are working or have other time pressures, may not be able to give as much time as you would like to this process. And this is a reality of life which children can learn to live with. This learning may take longer than we would like, but here, too, can be helped along by understanding and accepting our children’s feelings – as well as our own.
What has your own experience been with this process of separation?