"Please Don't Leave": Helping Children With Separation

By Karen Jacobson, MA, LCPC, LMFT

The start of school can bring about many feelings for young children and for parents.  It is common for some children to have difficulty separating from their caregivers.  Problems separating are usually due to fear of the unknown/ unfamiliar and a desire to stay connected to the person they know and love and that is familiar to them.  Problems separating are generally short lived.  Your teachers are experts at helping both your child and you adjust to the separation and embrace school.  Parents play a crucial role in helping the child separate.  A parent’s confidence in their child’s abilities to overcome this challenge is critical. 

What Parents Can Do To Help Their Child:

  • Learn about the structure of the school day, the drop off policy and pick up procedure

  •  Talk about school – Describe what will happen during the school day. Talking about the sequence of the day allows your child to form a picture in his mind of what to expect.  Let your child know that you will be back to pick them up after ___________ (snack, story time, etc).

  • Visit the school, meet the teacher and see the classroom with the child.

  • Read books about starting school.

  • Ask questions – “What are you really looking forward to?”  “What do you think will be the hardest part of the school day?”

  • Play a starting school game/Practice going to school – Get your child familiar with the routine, talk about the fun things at school: the toys, the dollhouse, the fish tank, the gym the slide on the playground.  Play “school”.  Pretend it is a school day and go through the motions of getting ready and going to school.

  • Plan ahead and talk about how you will say goodbye:

    ·         Avoid over drawn out, over comforting goodbyes

    ·         Be confident that your child will be fine

    ·         Create a fun ritual for goodbyes 

    ·         Talk about the sequence of the goodbye: “I’ll walk you to the door, I’ll give you a hug and kiss, then a high five, then I will tell you to hang up your backpack and I will leave.  I will be back to pick you up when school is over.”

    ·         Make a quick exit

    ·         If you child starts to whimper, cling to you, or melt down, calmly say, “You will be okay.” and continue leaving.  This is very hard but if you hesitate the child learns that his/her whining, clinging behavior or crying can make you stay.  Feel free to stay in the hallway out of sight for a few minutes.  Generally, most crying stops within the first 1 – 15 minutes.

  • Give children control over what they can control – Offering choices can give children a sense of control: “Would you like to wear this outfit or that one?”, “Do you want a banana for snack or an apple?”,  “Would you like to lead the way up the stairs or should I lead”, “Hold my hand or walk alone, it’s up to you.”, “Would you rather put on your backpack or would you like me to carry it?”

  • Slow down – Be prepared.  Being in a hurry creates tension that children can sense. Stressful situations are fertile ground for tears and tantrums. Have your children get ready the night before. they can lay out their clothes, gather supplies, pack backpacks, make a lunch, etc. Parents can also get ready the night before.  If you are not rushing, you can be emotionally available to your child in the morning.

  • Avoid power struggles over the morning routine. 

  • Have your child go to bed earlier – Leave time for listening to thoughts and feelings about the first day of school.

  • Acknowledge feelings and empathize – All feelings are okay and allowing children to express them gives them a chance to figure out how to cope.  Instead of saying, “Don’t be scared, school will be fun.”, acknowledge their feelings by saying, “I know you are worried, many kids feel like that on the first day of school” or “I know you are upset, let’s go say hello to the teacher together.”  Minimizing, pressuring, shaming or punishing your child for having uncomfortable feelings about leaving you will make separation difficulties worse and lead to power struggles.

  • Be aware of your feelings about your child separating and going to school.  A parent’s feelings can really affect the child.  It is normal for parents to have mixed feelings. However, when parents feel guilt, fear, anxiety, distrust or stressed, children pick up on those emotions.  Parental feelings can add to a child’s hesitancy, reluctance and fear.  It is helpful to examine your own feelings and find ways to feel more peaceful and comfortable with the transition.  Often, the start of school signals a time for parents to let go and allow their child to experience more independence.

  •  Be on time for both drop-off and pick-up.

 Things to Avoid

Starting school and separating can be stressful for children as it requires them to leave their comfort zone. Parent’s send messages to children through their words, their actions and their behavior.  Sometimes loving, well-meaning parents can create more anxiety. 

  • Don’t talk about how much you will miss your child. Don’t let your own worries get in the way.  Focus on the fun they will have in school and how happy you will be to see one another after school or after you return from work.  

  • Don’t insist on accompanying your child if he/she is ready to go in by themselves.  Some children are ready.  Allowing their independence builds self-confidence.

  •  Don’t prolong the good-bye.

  • Don’t peer in the window after leaving the classroom.  You are welcome to stay at the school until you feel comfortable leaving or until someone notifies you that your child is calm and adjusting. Please stay out of sight of the class.

  •  If you choose to wait in the school, don’t let your child know that you will be downstairs and will come back if you are needed.

  • Avoid all language that shames children or makes children feel bad about their fears and feelings:

    • I want you to be a big boy and stop crying.

    • Don’t be a baby.”

    • Be good for Mommy and don’t cry.”

    • “I don’t want to see tears.  School will be fun!”

  • Avoid language that compares them to others who are managing successfully:

    • Look all of the other children are having fun, you don’t see them crying.”

    • Your sister is even younger than you and she’s not scared. She wants to go to school.”

  •  Avoid Bribing:

    • Mommy has to go to work, if you let go and join your class, I’ll bring you a treat.”

  •  Avoid Punishing:

    • If you don’t go the class, there will be no TV after school.”

 What To Do If Your Child Has Difficulties:

  • Ask the teacher(s) for help – If your child will not go in or starts to cry, you might say, “Let’s go say hello to your teacher together.  She will take great care of you.”  If difficulties continue, discuss your concerns with the teacher at another time. It is best to call or e-mail the teacher and set up a time to talk other than drop-off or pick-up when your child cannot hear the conversation.

  • Acknowledge feelings - Instead of saying, “Don’t be scared.” or “Everything will be alright.”acknowledge what your child is feeling.  Then suggest a positive action you can take together to help your child feel more comfortable such as, “It sounds like you are scared about going to school.  I bet other kids are too.  Let’s think about what will help you feel better.”

  • If your child says, “I don’t want to go.” or “I hate school.”, ask them about their concerns. Children have a lot of worries. Find out what part of the day or the experience they did not like and talk about what could be helpful.  Also, ask about what part of the day they did enjoy.

  • If your child misses you a lot, help them choose a special object that she can bring to school that reminds the child that the you are thinking of her.  This can be a photo, a note, a momento, etc. Encourage the child to show the object to the teacher.

  • Monitor your own feelings about separation – When parents have trouble separating, children always pick up on this.  Keep in mind that the more secure you feel, the more confident your child may be.  Talk about your sad or uncomfortable feelings with your support persons such as other parents or attend parenting programs to help with the adjustment.

  • Keep in mind that changes in the family can complicate separation.  An illness, a recent move, a change in caregiver, a death, a divorce, the birth of a sibling, family stress and other situations can lead to increased emotion and sensitivity in a child.  It is important to let the teacher know of these changes, so she can be aware and help the child adjust and find ways to manage the feelings.

For more information about our online parenting course or parent coaching, contact Karen Jacobson, MA, LCPC, LMFT at 312-330-3194, Karen@parentingperspectives.com or Lauren Bondy, LCSW at 847-562-9503, Lauren@parentingperspectives.com. Or, visit www.parentingperspectives.com.