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.


Feeling Into Fall and Cultivating Resilience in Our Children: Part One

By Colleen Drobot


Summer’s over, now it’s fall, just the nicest time of all. I remember reading that poem in the early weeks of primary school and feeling like it was a big crock. Summer, not fall! was the nicest time of all because I could play and be free and be with my mom and not have any pressure to perform or get things right. I could wake up slowly, camp outside, eat treats, and not have to be conscious of behaving or fitting in. My teacher probably felt the same way about summer.



I know my mother welcomed the fall, which brought some respite from my siblings and me. Many parents long for the return of structure, healthy eating, bedtime routines, and yes, a break from their children, as much as they love them.


But for a child, the end to summer can be a big loss. Endings are hard for human beings. Although we may be excited about the future, we sometimes hold onto the past.   Many children, particularly sensitive ones, don’t want to get older; they find new ventures alarming, and they would prefer to avoid change. Transitions can be hard on all of us, particularly for children, as it means the unknown is coming, something bad could happen, and they may not be able to control or stop it.   Yet, change is inevitable and therefore our children must cope and hopefully gain resilience to deal with it.


There is so much children (and we!) cannot change or control. They cannot control winning all the time, being the best, being first, being liked or fitting in. They cannot control whether their sibling treats them well or hurts them. They cannot control whether their friends invite them to play or leave them out. They cannot control keeping mom and dad together, keeping grandma healthy, or keeping their pet safe at all times. This lack of control can create much frustration and alarm. These difficult emotions are par for the course for all of us when we cannot change or control our experience. But if emotions such as frustration or anxiety have no outlet and get stuck, they wreak havoc on our minds, bodies and behaviour. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work to shove them down and hope they go away. To be resilient, we must feel them, allow them to move through us, and express them in some way. Talking with someone we trust, moving our bodies, and creating art are all healthy ways to express what exists inside of us. For children, play is also an extremely important way to work through difficult feelings and experiences. If we continue to resist these challenging feelings, the system gets plugged up and stuck. And so does the maturation process.


As parents, we would do well to keep this in mind this month as transitions abound for our children. New schedules, new teachers, new bedtimes, and new activities can create upset and anxiety, causing behaviours in our children such as clinginess, tantrums and many tears. The good news is, as humans, we all have the capacity to adapt, to accept, and to surrender to things beyond our control. But it takes time. We must feel all the emotions that accompany the adjustment. If a child can feel their frustration or alarm, be conscious of it and express it (in a non-harming way) then the prognosis is good that they will adjust and thrive.


So how can we help our children become resilient in the face of change, loss, and difficult experiences? As developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld teaches, there are 3 keys to helping our children become resilient, learn and grow from life’s difficulties. Let’s take a look at the first important key (more to come in subsequent posts).


One of the most important keys to helping children become resilient is to allow or invite your children to have a good cry when they are upset. We must grieve what we cannot change. Not every child will spontaneously do so, but if your child can have a draining cry it releases pent up emotions.   The tears may start out as frustration, with yelling, complaining, whining, and basically fighting their experience. But if we can hang in there with them, sometimes the tears will slowly shift from tears of frustration to just a good cry that leads to acceptance of their situation. You will actually see and hear the energy shift as the limbic system (the emotional system) is engaged. The child’s body will soften, they will often allow us to comfort them, and resistance fades away. On the heels of a good cry, they will feel refreshed, as if the reset button was pushed. If the release of emotion is the kind we are looking for, we will often see in our child a renewed spirit, a softness, and new vibrancy

BW portrait of sad crying little boy covers his face with hands(or they may just fall into a healing deep sleep if it’s just before bed).

Some children are able to have good cries often and some children (particularly highly sensitive ones) fight this process. Sometimes, the brain will rail against it, as it is so vulnerable and it can be scary to let go. I have never seen a case when a child’s draining cry didn’t reduce their frustration or anxiety, at least temporarily. The more challenges they face, they more often they need to drain. It is similar to a child who is constipated. If they aren’t getting enough fibre they get plugged up. So too with pent up emotions that cannot be felt and expressed.


The good news is that other things can precipitate a good draining cry and this does the cleansing work. At a young age, as I sat in the theatre bawling over Old Yeller, many other sadness and losses were being released. When my son was little, he used to resist crying until he accidentally stubbed his toe or skinned his knee. Then the tears would come and he could relax.   This would inevitably free his energy up to go play, explore and grow. Even watching a sad movie and having a good drain can allow the ‘sun to come out again’ and grant us a renewed perspective of the world. If we don’t resist the process, the energy of frustration can move and be released.


So how does this grieving process help cultivate resilience?   By paving the way for the bigger losses they will inevitably experience. When a child has a good cry and survives it, the experience builds a tolerance for greater losses to come and builds confidence that they will be all right. This is the key to growing stronger from difficult experiences.   This is also true for teens and for adults but the sadness may be felt on the inside. We may not burst out crying every time we can’t control a situation. But we do need to feel emotions of sadness for surrender and resilience to ensue. For little losses, we can feel it inside. For big losses we may need to have many tears over time.


As parents we can midwife the process with understanding, patience, and compassion. It is very tempting to tell a crying child to cheer up, turn that frown upside down, and look at the positives. But we are actually interrupting this important process that leads to resilience. Instead of us fighting their experience or becoming logical, we should support the child’s feelings and allow the energy to soften and hopefully move to release.


Another way we often interrupt the process is by moving to fix or distract. We want to take the experience away, understandably, as it is hard to see our children upset and often we don’t have the patience for the messiness of a tantrum that often precedes a draining cry. But if we can see how important it is, as Dr. Neufeld says, to move from “mad to sad”,  then we will focus on allowing it to happen. Of course, there are times when distraction or fixing is necessary. When you have company, it’s ok to give in a bit to keep the peace. When you are in public and need to get out of a store or restaurant, it’s wise to use distraction just to survive the moment. But if we are using these strategies all the time, we are preventing our children from opportunities to feel upset or sad and know they can tolerate these big emotions. And we are robbing them of the opportunity to develop resilience.


We can help this process along by letting our children know we get how hard it is, by telling them we have felt this way too, and giving them the message their emotions aren’t too much for us. We may have to bluff this one at times! When we remain in the mature adult position it gives children a deep sense of security. It doesn’t mean things will magically clear up, but the depressed-teen-140428more a child can experience a tantrum and allow the feelings to shift to grieving and acceptance, the more resilient they become. We can also apply this to ourselves. The more we can grieve what isn’t working in our lives, the more resilient we become.

So these next few weeks may be rough as transitions happen. Routines, rituals, slowing life down and allowing for some tears will not only help in the short term but will pave the way for resilience to grow in the long run.

Stay tuned for other important keys to help facilitate this resilience process! In the meantime, we can be gentle with our kids and ourselves as we all feel our way into fall.