An Indian Parent’s Practical Coping Techniques for Separation Anxiety
Note: This is meant for parents of toddlers, preschoolers who are going to start daycare or school for the first time or for children who are undergoing large transitions in life that involve staying away from parents. For the purposes of this post, I will refer to both, preschool and daycare as “school”.
The end of March is here already and in just a few months, your little people will start school for the very first time in their life. School can be a scary place for the little people because it is an unfamiliar environment with a lot more structure and a lot less autonomy than they are used to at their homes.
The American Heritage Stedman’s medical dictionary defines separation anxiety as a child's apprehension or fear associated with his or her separation from a parent or other significant person. This anxiety/fear is hard coded into our genetic makeup. Our brains have something called a separation distress system that is genetically programmed to be hypersensitive. Evolutionarily speaking, it was critical for helpless babies to stay close to the parents to survive. In modern context, when we leave the child at the school the child feels rejected or abandoned. The parts activated in their brain are the same parts activated by physical pain. That means the pain of being rejected resembles physical pain. The child shows this pain and fear by being clingy, throwing tantrums, crying, and often-times there is regression in established behaviour, such as, a baby who is potty trained may begin to have frequent accidents or a child who has almost weaned off will demand more nursing sessions while at home.
Just like we would not ignore a child’s physical pain, we should not ignore a child’s emotional pain from separation. Parents who are responsive to their child’s distress have been proven to have better social-emotional competence. Consistent responsive parenting is also associated with faster cognitive and social development in young children.
Now that we have covered the science behind why children face separation anxiety. Let us look at some fool proof, evidence backed, simple, actionable methods that can help a child cope with separation anxiety while joining preschool.
This list is divided into three sections, things you can do with your child before preschool starts, things you can do during the transition period and a list of things exclusively meant for parents to cope with the daunting transition.
Talk Talk Talk about it: Talk about the “big” school, talk about uniforms, talk about how they will have to spend a few hours every day with their “friends”, talk about how mom/dad will go away for a few hours but will always come back, talk about teachers and other caregivers, talk about how they will get to take interesting snacks in colourful boxes, talk about how they can do things that interest them like arts and crafts, playground, sing rhymes, talk about how they can make new friends. Talk to them about every aspect of what a preschool life could entail. This helps them understand what to expect at school and that everything won’t be new, unfamiliar and daunting.
Visit the school: When you talk about school with toddlers and preschoolers, they find it difficult to relate to the concept and spatiality of a school. Visit the school with the child, more than once, once on a school day when other kids are around and another time when they are not. Just walk around the school, show the child their classroom, the bathrooms, the playground, the library etc. Most schools have visiting days or you can make a special request to the school to visit the school over a Saturday.
Prepare the teacher: The school teacher is responsible for all the children in their classroom. They will handle the child when the parent is gone and when the child is at their most vulnerable. You can prepare the teacher by telling them about your child’s routine, best way to soothe the child, any words that comfort your child in your own language (could be something as small as “shona”). The words they use for communicating hunger, thirst, and bathroom needs. Imagine from the point of view of your child, that their parents have left them at an unknown place where the new adults don’t even understand what they are trying to communicate. While most schools have forms that require parents to fill-in all this information, you can spend just a few moments to talk to the teacher about your child.
Read about it: Read a lot of books that talk about first day of school. Chu’s first day of school is a book by Neil Gaiman. This book provides some reassurance to children apprehensive about starting school when they learn about Chu's experiences on the first day at school. Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes is a good book for children who need some reassurance about coping with school life. Tulika Publishers Kool Skool is also a great read to get them excited about school. Most popular TV characters like Peppa, Daniel Tiger etc. have at least one episode dedicated to tackling school joining woes.
Play games: Role-play/games allow children to build important life skills, by giving them a chance to practice real-life situations in a safe, low threat/risk environment. You can play games with your child. For instance, roll a ball under the bed/sofa. Tell the child that you cannot see the ball but it is there under the bed and can be scooped up by the kid at any point. This reinforces the concept of object permanence that tells the child that although mom/dad will go away for a while at school, they will always be around and will come back at the end of the day. Role playing games involving the child in a school scenario could be a way of setting expectations around the kind of structure that will be in a classroom.
Name it and own it: Joining school is a time for big emotions because it is a time of separation from primary caregiver, it is a time of adjusting to so many new things, it is a time of understanding that the world is much larger than their home, it is a time of learning the social nature of humans (sharing, teamwork, staying quiet while someone else speaks). Children experience big emotions like anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, anguish that is demonstrated to parents and teachers in the form of tantrums, acting out, and regression in behaviour. This happens because they do not possess the vocabulary to express the anguish that they are going through. Talk to them about the positive and negative emotions associated with joining a school. Tell them that it is absolutely OK to feel either kind of emotions. Focussing only on the positives will leave them unprepared for the negative emotions. Practice naming these emotions before the school begins. This way they are able communicate what they are going to through.
Create a schedule: Children need routine and clear boundaries in their life. Children handle change best, if it is expected and happens in the context of an established routine. It teaches them self-control and feel in control of/in their environment. A child who knows that the morning routine involves waking up, brushing teeth, eating breakfast, bathing, and going to school, come back home, eat lunch is less likely to act out than a child who has no idea that going to school is part of their daily routine. You can use routine cards or a schedule chart or just talking about the schedule every day and acting on it consistently to establish it. You can involve the child by asking them to speak about the next and preceding activity. You can start doing this as early as possible before school actually begins.
Till now, we spoke about actionable things that can be done before your child starts school. Now we will talk about things that can be done during the transition period into the school.
Special Object: A familiar object that reminds the child of home can be sent to school. For instance, you can send a favourite doll, car, soft toy, blanket. These special objects are called transitional objects, because they help children make the emotional transition from dependence to independence. They are effective because of their familiarity and their feel-good”ness”. This reminds them of the comfort and security of their own room. It makes them feel that everything is going to be okay.
Be consistent: When you watch your child cry the big tears and their big eyes beseeching you not to leave, it can be very tempting to take a break for a few days and start all over again. What it will do is exactly that, start all over again. In the eyes of the child, they know that if they cry hard enough the threat of school will go away and things will go back to the way they were, back to cocoon of the parents. Resist this urge, bury it within and keep it consistent. Children sense any ambivalence on the part of their parents. If they feel that you are not confident about the school, children will feel the same way and act out.
Listen and Acknowledge it: We discussed earlier about naming emotions, this is the time to use it. At the end of the day when your child has come back home, ask them about their day and how they felt during the day. Prompt some of the emotion words if they are unable to articulate it. Once they share their feelings, do NOT belittle that emotion by saying, “No you did not feel that”. Listen, Acknowledge, and Empathize. You don’t always need to be ready with a solution. For instance, if your child felt scared, you can say, “I see that you felt scared today, it’s OK to be scared, I feel quite helpless when I get scared, I talk to my friend/teacher when I feel scared and it usually feels better the next time. Would like to try it the next time you feel scared?”
Don’t slink away: Do not run and quietly slip away while your child is not looking. Just imagine from the point of view of your child. You were there a moment ago, and just when they started feeling comfortable, you disappeared. They will never let you out of their sight the next time onwards. Keep the goodbyes short and simple, look into their eyes and say a quick bye before leaving.
Easing-in period: Most schools allow parents into the premises as part of their transition/easing-in period policy. The most effective way to ease them in is, pick up the child early on day one. Over the next few days, progressively increase the time to ease them into a full-day cycle. Even if a child seems fine, it does not always mean that they are fine inside. Cortisol is a stress hormone and is released when we feel stressed and it triggers a fight/flight response in humans. Cortisol has a circadian cycle. It is naturally high in the morning and reduces as the day goes on. Studies show that young children in daycare have levels of cortisol continually rising throughout the day rather than falling despite the lack of detectable distress from the outside. A child can be in distress without crying or looking stressed. Their emotions are just hidden. So even if the child has stopped crying or seems to be doing fine, it is still better to have shorter days at first.
Reinforce that you will come back: Constantly reassure your child that you WILL come back to pick them up. Be specific about when. Children do not understand concepts of “after some time”, “in two hours”, “soon”. So frame the time in the context of their routine or schedule. A good alternative will be, “I WILL come back and take you home after you play with your friends and have lunch together with them”. It speaks to them in a language they understand.
Develop a goodbye ritual: We discussed earlier about the power of schedule and routine in children’s lives. It could be a special goodbye wave, hi-five, special object, doodles, drawings, a simple hug, a reassurance that you will come back or a combination of these. Be firm and look into their eyes preferably at their level. The powers of a hug cannot be underestimated. To help a child in distress, hugging is one of the most effective ways. Hugging or holding facilitates the release of oxytocin, a feel-good chemical, that can cause the level of cortisol to drop.
Don’t compare: Each child is unique, do not compare your child with another child while they are in the process of adjusting to a new environment. The child sees that you are not confident in their ability. Do not say “Look at Ishan, he is not at all crying”. Instead you could say, ”I know that you are trying your best, it will take you a few more days but you will get there.”
Reinforce good behaviour: If you hear from the teacher about some good behaviour from your child, reinforce it by encouraging them to do it again by making them remember how it felt (emotions) to do that. For instance, if your child shared a toy, then tell them that,” I heard that you shared your toy with Raina today, it felt good to share your toy didn’t it? If you liked how it felt, do it again tomorrow.” Focus on the emotions, than the praise.
As parents, you go through separation anxiety too, the constant fear and guilt that if you are doing the right thing by leaving your child in daycare and heading back to work or the first days of school. Some coping techniques or “be still my heart” techniques for parents.
Be still my heart:
Pep talk: Give yourself the “Rocky” talk or Shahrukh’s pep talk from “Chak De” (whatever tickles your fancy). Psych yourself to the point that you are indestructible, undefeatable. Well, at least for those few early weeks. Not able to do this, tell yourself the truest, easiest way to get through it, “This too shall pass.”
Remind yourself why you are doing this: Whatever your choices are, you know best. Remind yourself why? It could be a fulfilling career, some me-time, socializing time for your kids. It will help you stay true to the goal.
Get to know the teacher and school so you are confident: Spend some time with the teacher before the school starts. Tell them about your child and their routine. Ask them about how they deal with kids with separation anxiety. Ask them about how you as a parent can ease this transition. Talk to them about the measures you are taking up to help with it.
Plan a coffee date with someone immediately after drop off: If you are still having second thoughts, spend the time while your child is at school with a friend. This is just to help you take your mind off catastrophe scenarios spawning in your head.
Talk to someone who has been through this: Lastly, talk to someone who will empathize with your situation. We don’t always need to hear solutions from others but just to know that someone is listening.
I will leave you with a beautiful quote from Janet Lansbury.
QUOTE: “In my world, there are no bad kids, just impressionable, conflicted young people wrestling with emotions and impulses, trying to communicate their feelings and needs the only way they know how.”
Would all of you be interested in another post talking about separation anxiety in infants?
- The neural bases of social pain: evidence for shared representations with physical pain
- Eisenberger NI, 2012
- Maternal Emotional Responsiveness and Toddlers’ Social-Emotional Competence. By Susanne A. Denham http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7610.1993.tb01066.x/abstract
- Does early responsive parenting have a special importance for children’s development or is consistency across early childhood necessary? By Landry, Susan H.; Smith, Karen E.; Swank, Paul R.; Assel, Mike A.; Vellet, Sonya http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/dev/37/3/387/
- Potegal, et al., 2003
- Morning-to-Afternoon Increases in Cortisol Concentrations for Infants and Toddlers at Child Care: Age Differences and Behavioral Correlates. By Sarah E. Watamura, Bonny Donzella, Jan Alwin and Megan R. Gunnar