The first day of school: Parents of young children know all too well what that’s like. That jittery, “butterflies-in-my-tummy feeling”; excitement, anxiety all rolled into one big ball of nausea at the very core of your being. And we’re not even talking of the school kid, here. Tee-hee.
The pitiful cries of “Mommy, DON’T GO!!!”, often accompanied by tears and leg-clinging. Heart-wrenching, for any parent; traumatic, for any child.
Separation anxiety can occur whether it is your child’s first day of school ever, or if they are returning after a vacation break.
Flashback to many years ago; snippets from my childhood: Me playing the dutiful big sister, checking in on my brother on his first-ever day at kindergarten. He sat by the window, and held his nanny’s hand through the jalousies, as silent tears rolled down his face.
Fast-forward several years from that: Me being the dutiful mom, accompanying my daughter to her first-ever day of pre-school. She did remarkably well; me, not so much.
I watched wistfully; winsomely as she – ever the brave soul – marched into her classroom, waving goodbye, giving me a thumbs-up, as silent tears rolled down my face. My heart swelled with pride, as she went over to a little girl, crying in the corner. “Don’t cry, it’s going to be ok,” my daughter said as she put her arm around the trembling tot.
Yes, she did well. So well, in fact, that she hardly seemed the same little girl who – just a few months before – would cling to my neck for dear life at the prospect of my leaving, and kick and scream if anyone dared pull her away.
The transformation didn’t happen overnight. Nor did it happen by some wave of a fairy godmothers’ magic wand. It took time, perseverance, and the patience of a saint to achieve. But the outcome was well-worth the effort.
Although separation anxiety is a normal stage of development in young children, it is often difficult to manage. Experts say that it is natural for your young child to feel anxious when you say goodbye. However, separation anxiety can also affect your child’s enjoyment of school and the learning process.
The good news is that with understanding, patience and some helpful coping tips, separation anxiety can be alleviated, and generally lessens and disappears as your child gets older.
Top 7 tips for dealing with separation anxiety:
- A little goes a long way. Practice separation in small doses. Almost like you were trying to develop immunity to an allergen. I would arrange to leave my daughter, with a trusted friend or with my parents for an hour at a time. An exercise which was – admittedly – more stressful for me, the worry-wart mom. But we both survived the ordeal, coming out duly strengthened.
- Play to learn. Switch roles with your child for a dress-up exercise in role-playing. Play the child, while allowing your child to be the parent. Act out all the motions of the first day of “pretend” school: have your child wake you up, get you dressed, feed you breakfast, drop you off, and pick you up from a day at school.
- Establish a goodbye ritual. Children generally have an easier time saying goodbye when a ritual accompanies it. It may be as simple as a hug and a kiss, a secret wave or hand gesture, or a keepsake for them to hang on to. This enables them to concretize that this is your way of saying goodbye, and that you will come back. My daughter and I had a heart pendant that would split into two halves. We would each hang on to one piece, rejoining the halves upon my return.
- Being sneaky is not a good idea. It is better to explain the situation and say goodbye properly, than to just sneak out of the room. Sneaking out can heighten your child’s anxiety, and create trust issues. Incorporate as many fun ways to explain the situation, such as storytelling (experts recommend the following children’s books, among others: I Love You All Day Long, The Kissing Hand, Go Home, Mrs. Beekman and The Night Before Kindergarten). Story books can be an effective tool towards developing an understanding of the situation, as children can relate to them, and they provide happy resolutions to challenging situations.
- Familiarity breeds security. Definitely not in keeping with the old saying about familiarity and contempt, but very helpful in dealing with separation anxiety issues. If your child’s school will allow it, try to make a few trips to the school before the first day. Point out fun areas: the craft corner, playground, their own little cubbyhole (kids generally love these). This was key for my daughter’s progress; two trips to the school, and she was in love with the kid-friendly school grounds. It also helps to schedule a playgroup with classmates, whenever possible, prior to the first day of school. This way, familiar, friendly faces await them in the classroom.
- Don’t project your emotions on your child. Your own stress and worry may aggravate your child’s emotions. Most children will take their emotional cues from their parents, so don’t let your own anxiety show on your face. Do not overemphasize separation issues, either.
- Countdown to the first day. Make a calendar a month before school starts and countdown to the start. Same principle as an Advent or Christmas calendar. This exercise will help your child visualize the schedule, and feel less trepidation when the big day finally rolls around.