One of the most important rites of passage for both parents and children happens when we send our little darlings off to school for the first time. What an exciting, scary, bittersweet time for parent and child.
Some children march off to school and have no trouble whatsoever settling in. For others, it can be more traumatic. And there is nothing worse than leaving your child in the throes of separation and stranger anxiety when you want so desperately to relieve them of this despair.
My son happily went off to school for the first three days of kindergarten. But the following Monday he decided he had had enough. When we started out to meet the bus, he ran around the house and in through the back door sobbing that he wanted to stay home. My neighbor stepped in, bless her heart, walking and cajoling him to the bus stop. That was the day I cried.
If your child’s anxiety gets the better of them, you will be faced with the agony of tearing yourself away as s/he is begging you not to leave. Their apprehension is so understandable when you consider that this is a whole new experience and your child has no idea what to expect.
Following are some ideas that may help in the transition for you and your child.
Before the first day, plan to visit the school with your little person during a day when the teacher is in the classroom. A Visitors Week or some other event is sometimes set up for this purpose. Otherwise, call the school and leave a message for the teacher to call and arrange a convenient time to visit.
There are numerous story books about starting school. Helping a child to visualize beforehand what will occur, is very beneficial. The Kissing Hand, a lovely story by Audrey Penn, is especially helpful in dealing with separation anxiety, and worth reading with your child before school starts.
Finding a small token for your child to keep in their pocket to remind them that you love them and will be back soon can be a great comfort.
Make a special day of your child’s first day in school. Start the day with a nutritious breakfast of eggs or fruit and toast or whole grain cereal. A breakfast loaded with sugar merely aggravates the emotional upheaval your little one experiences and will make things more difficult for your child, yourself, and the teacher.
If your child wants to bring their favorite doll or stuffed animal to keep them company, let them. Explain that if this little “friend” is too disruptive, the doll or teddy may have to wait in their backpack until it is time to go home.
The first day of preschool or kindergarten is often shortened to allow the children to gradually become accustomed to this new environment. Tell your child that you will be back when it’s time to go home. Give them a frame of reference as to how long that will be (e.g., if it is going to be an hour, say, “That’s how long Sesame Street is on.”)
Plan with your child that when you come back, you will have a special date and go out for lunch or to the playground.
Talk about your child’s feelings. (“It’s a little bit scary when…” or “ I feel that way sometimes too, but you know what? It always, always gets better.”) When I tell young children that I always feel shy on the first day, it validates their feelings and empowers them to feel braver.
Tell your child that some kids become upset when their parents leave, and suggest that if that happens, they can make a special effort to make friends with that child.
Even if a child is distraught, it is much easier for all of you if you just leave (although sneaking out is usually not a good idea). Your hesitation just proves that there is reason to be afraid!
Do not let your child see you cry in this situation.
A child’s distress passes much more quickly if you make a clean break. Once when my husband and I were leaving one of the kids with a sitter, when we left them in his room he was crying- until we reached the first landing.
When you bring your child in the morning, explain that when it’s time for you (the parent) to leave, you will leave, but will be back when it’s time to go home. Then leave! More often than not, a child is distracted enough within the first five minutes to enjoy the day so much that he doesn’t want to leave when it is time to go.
In the parking lot after they have deposited their children, parents sometimes organize meeting for coffee. What better time to support one another in a time of doubt, and start meeting the parents of your child’s new friends?
-RDW (2005, revised 2010)