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The Informed Parent

When Your Child Is Afraid To Leave You

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Sep. 13, 1999

How quickly summer passes. By mid August families shop for school clothes and begin planning the required schedule changes for the school year. Children entering school for the first time talk excitedly about going to school.

This excitement continues for most children as they enter their new experience. For some, however, beginning school creates more anxiety than excitement. Not knowing what to expect in this new phase of life is scary enough. Having to leave a parent, though, is even scarier.

Children who are fearful of separation from their parent exhibit various symptoms. The most common symptom is crying and clinging to you. Others may include tantrums, withdrawing, stomachaches, headaches or difficulty sleeping. Some children exhibit only one symptom while others experience a combination. Usually the symptoms are short-lived; however, some children cry for several weeks when separating from you. If the symptoms of separation are severe and continue for more than a few weeks, talk to your pediatrician. Professional help may be warranted.

Consider the classroom teacher as a team member with you and your offspring. Teachers of young children understand childhood fears. They know how to help your little one adjust to school. Sharing concerns you may have with the teacher helps him or her to be of greater support to both your child and you.

A number of simple but not easy-to-follow steps can aid you and your child during this time of transition.

  1. Be positive about your day. Let your child know what you will be doing while he is at school. Details are not important. You might say, "I'm going to my office this morning and to a meeting this afternoon. Then I'll come to school (or daycare) and pick you up." Your goal is to provide a picture of what you'll be doing without overloading him with too much information. It assures him that your day will go on as usual and that he will not be left out of special activities. It reassures him that you will definitely be returning for him.
  2. Make a cheerful statement about her upcoming day that she cannot refute. For example, mention a friend she will see at school. Avoid telling her what fun she will have. That is sure to result in a loud, "No, I won't!"
  3. Reflect his feelings to him without getting into a discussion about the situation. Saying, "I know you feel sad about leaving me. We'll be together again this afternoon," is helpful. To discuss why he is sad or adding to his feelings with sadness you may feel only increases his anxiety.
  4. Tell your child you love her and give her a hug. Assurance is what she needs at this time.
  5. When it's time to leave your child at school, do so matter of factly and quickly. This is VERY hard. He may cling to you. He may cry. The sooner you are out of his sight, the more likely he is to get involved in a play activity. The anticipation of the separation and the moment of leaving are the hardest. Once you are gone, he usually adjusts well.

The teacher can be very helpful with this last step. She has enticing activities to engage your child's interest. She knows how to guide him gently and firmly away from you as you leave.

You can rest assured that if you do not receive a call from the school all is well. Resist the temptation to call and check on your child. Teachers need to be with their class and don't have time for other than emergency calls.

You will experience a variety of feelings if your son or daughter has difficulty leaving you. Some will surprise you. You may feel sad, scared, anxious, angry or hopeless. You will not feel neutral! Know that you and your child will get through this time. When you do, school becomes the positive experience you both hoped for.

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