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Separation Anxiety: Struggling to Say Goodbye

Published in ChicagoNow, October 5, 2015

In politics, the October surprise refers to the big event that happens just before an election to shape its outcome. But anyone involved in early childhood education knows that while some kids cry in September, others fall apart in October after their parents think they have made an excellent adjustment. This is a preschooler’s version of the October surprise. No matter when separation anxiety surfaces, saying goodbye to a parent or guardian to start preschool can be traumatic, both for young children and the adults in their lives.

I could share hundreds of stories about kids who hid in cubbies or had to be peeled off of the person who brought them to preschool, and about adults who cried on my shoulder and questioned their decision to leave their child at an early childhood program. But I will just share one – my grandson’s struggle with separation anxiety in a preschool parent-day-out setting.

My grandson is an almost three-year-old fearless warrior at home. When his two older siblings were away at school, he pieced together the outfit pictured above.

But when it’s time to go to preschool two mornings a week, he cries pitifully, “Can’t I just stay home with you, Mommy?” His mother works, so he is has been the care of a sitter for 25 to 30 hours a week since he was a baby. He’s fine with her leaving him with his nanny, just not with the concept of going to school.

I can’t say this surprises me. I know my grandson. He’s a lot like his mom, my daughter, was at that age. I also know from my many years as a preschool director that separation anxiety can be tough. When little ones start school, they are making an important transition from home to school, from parent, guardian, or caregiver to teacher, and from individualized play to group social experience.

Separation arouses powerful emotions – fear, anger, abandonment, anxiety, and sadness. Young children have fewer resources with which to manage these feelings and the accompanying loss of their sense of security. Like my grandson, many children express their feelings through protesting (crying, whining, or throwing tantrums) or by acting sad or angry (detachment, withdrawal, rejection of playmates and teachers, or lashing out at the returning parent). All of these behaviors are normal. It is our job as the adults in the room to validate these

emotions, to build trust, and to help each child work toward the ultimate goal of adjustment at his own pace.

At the same time, we adults have feelings about bringing our kids to a preschool program as well. We experience a wide range of emotions: excitement (My child is growing up), ambivalence (I’m not sure I’m ready for my child to leave me), worry (How well will my child function without me there?), fear (What if my child doesn’t do well?), and sadness (I’m not ready to let go). All of this is normal. We each bring our own baggage about separation and starting school along for this ride.

So back to my grandson, like his mother the youngest of three. He knows his role as baby of the family well. We read him books about starting school. We try all of the tricks in my book:

  • While you are playing with toys and your friends, Mommy is going to run errands and get groceries – boring stuff. You get to play.

  • We will do something special when I pick you up.

  • How do you want to say goodbye today, high five or fist bump?

  • I’m really proud of you for going to preschool today.

  • Don’t have any fun. Well, ok, just have a tiny little bit of fun.

  • Keep this in your pocket to hold in case you feel sad.

Still, he cries at both ends of the morning.

Baby Baymax and his mom

My daughter thought she had a genius solution. They played a game at home with Baby Baymax and Mommy Baymax (the lovable robot from the movie Big Hero Six, which he adores). Baby Baymax goes to school over and over again. Each time he cries, but when Mommy Baymax (my daughter) asks him how it was, Baby Baymax (my grandson) replies, “I cried but I didn’t die.” He goes to preschool with Baby Baymax in his backpack now, but he still bursts into tears when my daughter retrieves him.

I know as a professional that young children like my grandson are grappling with so many feelings. “School” is both alluring and frightening. I know once he gets comfortable, this will be good for him. He needs to learn to play with his peers and trust teachers. I also know some of his classmates who seemed to start out like model preschoolers will stage a protest in October once they grasp what this “school thing” is all about. Finally, especially for parents working outside the home, I know their child’s distress plays into their guilt.

In his writings, the late, great Fred Rogers reminds us that,

“Transitions can still take lots of time, even when children have had warm, trusting relationships…Little by little, at their own pace, children will be able to move ahead on their own. Even though [parents and guardians] may feel some sadness as children move ahead, they can also feel pride in the strengths they’ve given children as they move to a new separate, unique, independent, feeling, decision-making person! What a tremendous journey that is!”

My grandson’s crying breaks my heart but I know the ability to separate is a developmental necessity. Hopefully, it will happen this year, but if not, my daughter may take a break at the end of 2015 (telling him school is over for now) and try again next fall. After watching this process for many years, I’m sure he will reach the finish line at his own pace and in his own unique way. This is one race in which speed is unimportant. So, dry your tears my beloved grandson and daughter. Think of how proud you both will be when he evolves into a happy preschooler.


by Laurie Levy
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