As the new school year takes over many Irish houses, the topic of separation anxiety becomes common around many dinner tables. For some children (and their parents and loved ones!) the difficulty of settling into a new or revisited daily routine which involves a significant amount of time away from the family becomes a point of strain, stress and tension. If a child is entering education or childcare for the first time, most institutions will have an active policy on how to deal with fear and sadness when they arise. From a therapeutic point of view, it is a good idea to interact with the institution’s policy whilst still holding the norms of your family at the centre of your treatment of the child in question. Sometimes, it can be about finding a balance between what the school wants and what your child needs. Many parents will struggle to see their little one suffer and seek any help that they can get in alleviating some of their child’s pain. What can we do to ensure that the child’s emotionality is respected, whilst also allowing the needs of the wider group to be met?
The first thing to note is that separation anxiety in children is common and understandable. These little people, that are allowed such freedom of emotional expression within the home are being asked to be in a relatively-emotionless environment for a significant period of time. Even the ‘positive’ emotions are strictly managed within any institution. Joy, exuberance or any significant display of emotionality will be met with a need to maintain order amongst the wider group and when this cross section occurs, the impact of routine, structure and order on emotionality becomes somewhat evident. Likewise, when a child finds the separation from their family difficult, it can often be met with the need for order and tranquility within the wider group. This most often manifests at the point of separation (ie at drop off) but can present itself at any point throughout the day, when a child feels the severity of the separation and seeks to soothe themselves as they can.
It needs to be accepted that tears are not only an acceptable manner of expressing pain, but are also a relief to the build up of fear and sadness that can occur within a child at the moment of separation. If the school or creche that your child attends wishes drop off to be a tear-free environment, the only solution for a child that needs to express themselves in this manner will become for them to cry at a different point along the separation route. If the child understands that it is not acceptable to cry at school, give them full permission to cry at home or en route. Tears are important, if they are important to your child. Often, seeing our child crying feels like a failure to some parents and this is a piece that we need to work on, as a society, to reframe. Tears do not represent a breakdown in order. Rather, they are a safe and legitimate means by which to momentarily express the turmoil that anyone feels at the point of sadness and pain. Allowing our children to express their full emotionality means that they work to build a full and real spectrum of emotion throughout their lives. The inverse of this is also true. An environment that does not allow tears as an expression of legitimate emotion (as all emotion is!) is an environment that actively works to suppress emotionality. Though there is social and institutional merit in having an emotionally-neutral educational space, there is also danger in feeding children the message that sadness, pain or fear are ‘bad’ feelings and must be worked to be irradicated. Once the tears have been permitted and accepted, remember that they are fleeting. To move the emotionality along, after a suitable period of time, try distracting the child with another feeling, or even with an activity. This is a space in which having a third party intervene can be very helpful. A teacher or another authority figure can often provide emotional distraction for the child and a useful avenue by which the parent can begin to lessen their input into the child’s particular moment.
Working cognitively through the piece, most of us can identify with the idea that a new environment is frightening. Thinking from a child’s perspective, this is not just a new environment, but also one where there are many adults present who work hard to create an ordered atmosphere. Therefore, they are not only in a new room for significant periods, but they are also within new peers (some of whom they will naturally not get along with as well as others) and within at least one authority figure who appears to them to want order even more than they want to know each of these special individuals. Allowing every child the freedom to express not only the excitement of this but also the fear gives them the opportunity to become rounded, emotionally speaking. For a child that feels the fear very fully, they will need significant space and time to work through it.
Delayed gratification is a useful tool when a child feels emotionally overwhelmed. Tell them that you know that they are scared now. They are allowed to be scared. Their fear, once acknowledged, does not necessarily mean that they will not be able to proceed. There is no need to presume that one will follow the other. If they are allowed to feel their fear as much as they have it, they will, eventually, be able to boundary it themselves. A bribe or treat can sometimes be enough of a physical acknowledgement of the magnitude of this fear to allow the child to continue. However, remember to frame it with acknowledgement of this (‘I know you are scared. I am proud of you for being able to have all this fear. I know that this is hard. When you get home, the treat that we will share together will remind us of how big your fear was and how much it took for you to be able to continue’)
Ultimately, separation anxiety, if present, needs time and patience. Though it can be very trying within any family, remember that it will pass and that the small person in question needs to be respected within their emotionality and also commended for holding such a big feeling through a new experience. Time helps everything and talking about any feeling makes it seem less frightening. Finally, if it does become an impediment to education or to daily life, then a few sessions with a trained child therapist might make all the difference.