Back to School: Holding Onto Our Kids When Facing Separation

Girls standing apart from others in school --- Image by © Heide Benser/Corbis

By Patti Drobot

Fall has arrived. School is in. Once again begins a season that for many parents is fraught with getting children to school on time, packing healthy lunches, getting them to actually eat the healthy lunches, homework, and bedtime routines. It’s possible your child might not be happy about it. For many parents it may be a time when young children have difficulty separating. A child is crying and clinging at the classroom door, unable to make the transition form home to school. For other children it may be less obvious; the vague “I don’t want to go to school” or “Can I stay home with you?” may be the sign that separation is difficult. What is a parent to do?
It might help parents to understand that for young children, this can be part of normal development. So often in my private practice, I help parents discern what is frustrating and inconvenient for them but may be part of normal development for their child. We often make the mistake of seeing children as small adults and become frustrated at what seems like the easy task of spending a day at school. But when you are young, sensitive, or prone to worry, it’s sometimes not so easy.

As a parent, there is a lot you can do to make this transition easier. Mornings can be tricky. Your child has been separated from you for several hours during sleep and now there is that short amount of time before they will be leaving you again for school all day. Connecting with your child during this time is key and can make all the difference. With all that has to happen to get out the door on time, this may seem like a difficult task. It need not take long however and the benefits can be profound.

Greet your child first in the morning. Let them know how delighted you are to see them, how you checked on them in the night. Dr. Gordon Neufeld calls this ‘collecting our children’ and states how important this is for deepening attachment. How we collect our children depends on the child.

For me, I cuddle my children or ruffle their hair, taking a few moments to let them know how special they are to me. And most challenging of all, preserve the connection even when you’ve already told them 3 times to get their socks and shoes on. I recall a morning not long ago when I was frustrated and grouchy. My daughter said to me …” Mommy, it’s hard to leave you for the day when we’re not friends.” Indeed, going into the challenges of the day are far easier when you are connected with the ones you love. The same is true for spouses.

Also key in this transition phase is what Dr. Gordon Neufeld calls “bridging the divide”. When it is time to say good-bye, let your child know how much you are looking forward to seeing them at the end of the day (or at lunch time if you can swing it). Talk about the cookies you are planning to bake with them later, the story you look forward to reading them at bedtime, the soccer game you want to watch with them later. This helps them hang on to you and puts the focus on the return rather than the separation.

Giving your child something they can hold onto can also help; a locket, note, scarf or a belonging of yours. A wonderful book is “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst. This children’s book illustrates the heart connection we all hold with those we love, even when we can’t be with them physically. I read this to my daughter 2 years ago and as a ritual, we still run an invisible string from my heart to hers every time we part for the day.  And remember, taking the time to connect and bridging the divide is not just for your little ones. I make sure that as my 13 year old heads off to school each day, I have made some form of connection, focusing on what we will do later together, and letting him know I delight in his existence even when, and especially when, he is not so delightful.

Connecting in the morning, focusing on uniting again, and giving your kids something to hold onto during the day can go along way to strengthening attachment and decreasing separation problems.

Separation Can Be Scary

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 10.03.04 PMBy Patti Drobot

Lately, I have had a number of parents coming to see me
because their child is having difficulties separating for the school day. These kids are generally 5 or 6 years old and the parents are distraught. “It doesn’t feel right to have my child dragged out of my arms crying hysterically.” It doesn’t feel right because it isn’t
right and yet all too often, parents are afraid to trust their instincts.

I recall a close friend in this struggle years ago when her daughter had trouble entering the classroom at the start of the day and saying good-bye to mom. The teacher told the child that Pippi Long Stocking, Harry Potter and Anne of Green Gables all managed to get by without their parents and she would too. Her alarm skyrocketed and the school administrator told my friend she was not allowed to come into the school to say good-bye to her daughter at the beginning of each school day. Coming home at lunch was also thought to contribute to the problem and more peer interaction was recommended. An anxiety disorder was suggested and therapy recommended. This mother would have none of it and did what she knew was in the best interest of her daughter. She continued to walk her daughter to class to say good-bye and put the focus on their return by letting her daughter know they would see each other at lunch. She also bridged the distance by giving her daughter a locket of hers to hang on to during the day. The school staff disapproved but she felt she knew best. Her daughter is now 12 years old, a leader in her community and happy to go to school.

The daughter recently commented on the time in her life when it was hard to leave her mom. One of her significant memories was when one day, the classroom aide got down to the child’s eye level and said, ”It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay it miss your mom.” For this little girl, those words were her comfort and she never forgot them. The principal recently commented on how much this girl had “blossomed” which was really about her development – something that happens quite naturally when we cultivate deep attachments and provide emotional safety for our children.

Parents are too often being told that their children need to “self-regulate ” their emotions. Behavior management techniques aimed at stopping emotions such as fear and frustration are being recommended for children as young as 5 or 6. Children this young are often being taught to change their thoughts in order to control their emotions. The funny thing about development is that it can’t be taught. Gordon Neufeld has a wonderful expression: ”We don’t need to learn to grow up. We need to feel to grow up.” In other words, children need to have their emotions – all of them. There is no need to push or panic or teach “self-regulation” which is all the buzz these days.

In young children, too much separation is alarming. Do we need to hand them a self-soothing technique to try and make their fears go away? What message are we giving? I tell parents that for many children in Kindergarten, 6 hours is too long to be away from those to whom they are most attached and that it is normal for children to be scared and nervous when they are young. It is quite “normal” for young children to not yet be able to “regulate” their emotions. We need to be careful as a culture not to pathologize separation anxiety in children at 5 or 6 and expect them to behave like small adults.

To quote Dr. Gordon Neufeld, “Children should live unconsciously”. It is their right. As a culture, this all too often seems to be forgotten.