It’s September and that means the kids are off to school! Some parents are kicking up their heels with joy, but for others it’s a distressing time. Separation anxiety is the emotional stress of being away from your loved one and impacts both children and parents. Tots might have a hard time saying goodbye to Mom or Dad at the door of their preschool. And teary-eyed parents might suffer when we have to leave their grown child in a dorm in a different city or country.
So how we can help with these life milestones so neither suffers? I am here to offer some helpful tips!
For our little ones, the happy snappy goodbye
Sure, we expect some separation anxiety to occur and to be developmentally appropriate when we drop our little ones off for daycare, nursery school or kindergarten. Some have troubles with transitions from home to school for the first few grades of school.
For parents, it’s hard to see our child in distress, so we typically try to wait until they are calm before we leave. Unfortunately, this only serves to prolong the period of transition creating more distress instead of less. They only start to settle down once you are gone and they get engaged in the classroom activities. Crying outside the door is an emotional negotiation that requires your attention. How long do you want them to negotiate the inevitable? Instead, I recommend a “happy snappy goodbye”. Talk to their teacher in advance explaining you know they will be clinging and need some help getting in the door. Give the teacher permission to help lovingly pry the child off you. Stay calm, happy and positive. “I love you so much, I see you are upset about saying goodbye, but I know you will have a great day and I will see you at pick up time. I will be at the grocery store and picking up the dry cleaning and then be right back to pick you up and hear about your morning”. Then kiss and run! Trust the teachers will be able to soothe and distract your child. They’ve done this many times before! If they are inconsolable, they will let you know that too. The great majority just settle in.
For the parents of young adults: Manage your anxiety and grief reaction
Dropping your child at college or university is bound to feel like a loss when they have been a constant companion in your life for 18 or 19 years. Parents can experience grief as they realize this marks the end of an era of parenting as their babies are now actually launched into adulthood. Of course, we are happy for them, but sad for ourselves. Many parents put all their energy and sense of self identity and worth into their role as a parent. Now what? Who am I if you don’t need me? Now what is my importance and focus? Parents have to rediscover all over again other ways they are significant and have contributions to make. Anxiety may crop up over how their child will manage without them since you’ve always been a duo.
Realize that this is your issue to manage, not theirs. You don’t want a child to have to parent an adult that is worried and sad. That is an unhealthy role reversal. Instead, experience your grief for what it is. Be sad. Honour what was important. But then move on to finding new ways to connect and new rituals for your relationship at this adult stage. Instead of dinner together every night, maybe you Facetime every week on their way to night class. Do an inventory of other interests that you have put on the back burner in order to focus on parenting. Maybe you have time for a painting class or to take up wood working. If the transition is too challenging and you are sad or anxious for an extended period, seek professional counselling. Many therapists specialize in life transitions.