When my youngest was in kindergarten, I picked her up every day on my lunch break and drove her to our babysitter’s house. She was a wonderful woman whom I had known since I was in high school and I trusted her completely. She was loving, gentle, kind, and supportive to both my and my daughter. My little girl was very happy when she left kindergarten, chatted all the way to the babysitter’s house, but when the house was in sight, she began to cry. She clung to me as I carried her to the front door and wrapped herself around my legs when I sat her down in the house. I would have to pry her tiny hands from me as I struggled out the door and she would plaster herself against the glass, with tears streaming down her face as I pulled out of the drive way. My babysitter assured me that I was gone no more than five minutes and she was smiling and playing with the other children. I had a hard time believing this when I had to deal with the tears every single day, but I knew it was true.
When she began first grade, everything was better. She went to afterschool daycare located at the elementary school, so it was like going from one class to another. I didn’t see her until I picked her up in the afternoon after work and the adjustment was very easy. I chalked the previous incidents up to her wanting to stay with me when I picked her up mid-day and thinking that she could get her way with a tantrum.
Then we moved. Brand new school, brand new teachers, brand new friends. When I would drop her off at school on my way to work, there would be a few tears and I received an occasional phone call at work that she was upset. If I talked with her on the phone, she only got worse. Through trial and error, her teacher and I learned how to best calm her and get her into her classwork. But the problem persisted, so we brought in the school psychologist. This woman was a blessing in disguise.
Once a week, my daughter went to the school psychologist’s office and unburdened herself of all her worries. Some were repetitive; some were easily fixed; and some were obviously made up because she couldn’t think of anything else to say. The bottom line was that she had become used to me and her sister being there for her all the time – literally. Now she was “alone” and she wasn’t sure how to cope – or who she could trust. (My girls are spaced, age-wise, so that the only year they were in the same school at the same time was kindergarten.) This wonderful woman taught her simple ways of realizing she wasn’t alone and determining who was trustworthy. Life became a bit easier…until I had to go to St. Louis on business. For a week before and the week after, we reverted to the behavior we endured in kindergarten – buckets full of tears and full-blown tantrums. She saw the psychologist every day I was gone. It was my last business trip and my realization that I needed a different job. (A different story entirely!)
Unfortunately, sometimes you can get too much of a good thing. After my trip, we had to begin weaning my little girl off the psychologist, too! She began experiencing separation anxiety when she didn’t see her every day. Luckily, by the end of the year, she was not crying when I took her to school, she didn’t need to see the psychologist any more, she had made lots of new friends, and she was a very happy little girl. For all the obvious stress that she endured, I promise you that mine was ten times worse! For those of you who have children who suffer from separation anxiety, you know exactly what I mean!
What can we do to help our children adjust? It sounds simple, but is not always so easy. First, we must keep ourselves calm and reassuring. Easier said than done when those little fingers have a steel-grip on your pants’ leg. Keep reminding yourself that this is a phase (it really is!) and that you will survive it, as others have in the past.
Reassure your child as needed. Work it into normal, every day conversations. Let them know that you love them and will not leave them. There are times when complete honesty is the best policy, but now is not the time to fall upon the truth of “we never know how long we have together.” If they need to believe that you are immortal at this point, let them. They will grow up and learn all about life soon enough.
Make sure that your child has an item of comfort with them when ever you must be separated. You may have to get special permission from their teacher for them to have this…blanket, stuffed animal, photo, whatever it may be…but it will be well worth it for both of you if you communicate up-front and come to a reasonable compromise. Your child does not even have to keep it with them; just knowing it is in their cubby or book bag, ready if needed, may be all it takes.
Make use of the school psychologist. Children have all types of fears and anxieties. It goes with the territory of childhood. There is no shame in involving the school psychologist, or a professional of your choice, if these fears get out of hand. It does not mean that your child is abused or neglected; it means that they need help with their coping skills. We all do, sooner or later, in life.
Also, remember that separation anxiety can disappear as easily and quickly as it appeared. Separation anxiety is not the same as separation anxiety disorder. Many children experience separation anxiety and this does not necessarily signal a more deep-rooted issue. If you believe there may be a serious issue, then your best source of information is your child’s pediatrician. Share your concerns and they should be very willing to assist you in addressing them.
As with all stages in a child’s life, this one will not be permanent. Do not pull out your hair or invest in ear plugs. Do give yourself a bit more “quality time” with your child and remember that they are only this age once in their lives. Enjoy the best parts of it while you can, for they will pass right along with those that aren’t so good.