Nothing is more heart-wrenching than dropping your son or daughter off for the first day of preschool and attempting to leave as they dissolve into tears, convinced you’ll never return. At that moment, most parents feel like the worst parents in the world, willing to leave the most precious of their possessions with virtual strangers for the next four to six hours. Although we know the importance of schooling and allowing our children to develop into independent individuals, the emotions of actually helping them make the transition and begin to loosen the ties that bind us together are gut wrenching and create doubt in even the most convicted of minds.
Almost all children experience some level of separation anxiety, manifesting as nervousness or a full meltdown as we prepare to leave them at school for the first time (Finlay, 2008). It’s a perfectly natural phenomena, one we parents probably remember longer than our young children. As a matter of fact, in most cases it’s more likely than not that the attention of your toddler has been given over to exploring the wonders of their new environment long before you have buckled your seatbelt and backed out of the parking lot, wracked with guilt and contemplating rushing back into the school to save her from the torment you are certain will cause permanent emotional scarring.
As bad as it seems to experience the crying and leg-clinging of a first-time preschooler, imagine the disturbing alternative: What if your child expressed no emotion whatsoever when being separated from you for the first time? Would that be as concerning (or more so) than wiping up tears and a runny nose while peeling her hands from the leg of your trousers? For some, it might be. As a matter of fact, in many instances it is the parents who experience more anxiety as a result of the separation caused by school than their children (Anonymous, 2012).
Even when we’re secure in the knowledge of the reasonableness of our children’s crying and anxiety, we still experience it as a traumatic event, blaming ourselves and our circumstances for creating such a separation. For working parents, it becomes a bit easier to rationalize as we realize the necessity of preschool and, in some instances, have experience with separation due to similar experiences with daycare providers in the past. For those who choose preschool simply as a means of beginning a child’s socialization and education but who are stay-at-home parents, the guilt can be a little more overwhelming. In those instances, there seems to be more of a choice, more of a settling of the weight of separation on the shoulders of the parent. After all, you are at home, why can’t your child be there along with you?
In either case, your child will eventually need to begin school and experience that moment when you let go of their hand and walk away. The more secure and confident you are in this decision, the easier the transition will be for your child. There are also a few pointers that can help you make the situation easier on both of you, simply by investing a little time and energy into preparation for that big day.
- Pay an advanced visit to the school with your child. Certainly you’ve explored the school on your own as you contemplated the most appropriate place to educate your child, but it’s also possible that you didn’t include your child on those visits. Make it a point to return to the school with your son or daughter, preferably during a time when students are engaged in routine day-to-day activities. Show your child the way others work together and form friendships as a means of creating their own miniature “support networks” of peers (Strawhacker, 2013).
- Create a “going to school” ritual your child can count on. Whether it involves simply packing their lunch and backpack together or a particular way you say goodbye when the time comes, ensure that your child knows what to expect and is prepared to follow along with you as you depart. Repeat this routine every morning and, in a short while, you’ll find the tears and frustration of your child decreasing as they come to understand you as a dependable person – when you follow routine and they know you’ll be back, they’ll feel good about letting you go.
- Choose your words carefully. Refrain from mentioning the word “worry” at all, as in “don’t worry, it will be ok.” As with adults, this plants the idea in a child’s mind that there is something to worry about, after all. Don’t repeat how much you’ll miss them while you’re apart, as this tends to instill guilt in a child who wants to have fun at school but returns to the idea that you are at home or work, missing them terribly (and probably, in their young minds, paralyzed with sadness and tears). Children need to know it’s okay for them to enjoy school and understand that your time apart is allowing them to do so.
The first day of school will be memorable for you for years to come, but your child will soon replace those memories with fresher, newer experiences that will, over time, come to define them as individuals, students, and friends. Remember to encourage them as they head off to learn and to instill a love of education in their minds at every opportunity.
Anonymous. (2012). Making preschool and school separations easier. Work & Family Life, 26(7/8), 5.
Finlay, L. (2008). Separation anxiety survival guide. Today’s Parent, 25(7), 47-50.
Strawhacker, M. T. (2013). First steps: Making the transition to preschool. NASN School Nurse, 28(5), 242-245.