Hands up if you encountered separation anxiety on your child’s first day of school last month? Their fear of leaving your side, not knowing what’s in store and suddenly having to fend for themselves can be worrying – and it won’t stop there. Children’s birthday parties and days out are classic examples of times when they will find themselves in new surroundings with unknown people, and no parents there to help them through. While a degree of upset is normal, there are many things you can do to lessen the heartache for you and your child, making the time you spend apart a much more enjoyable experience all round.
• In the weeks before they start school, pack them off to the grandparents’ for the night. It’ll get them used to the idea of spending time without you and help them to develop a sense of independence.
• Many schools hold open days prior to the term beginning. Take your child along so that they can get used to where they’ll be spending their days. Show them where the toilets are and, if possible, introduce them to their teacher, so they can begin to form an idea of what to expect on their first day.
• Shopping with a kid in tow can be challenging, but don’t let this put you off taking them along when you do the new term shop. Let them pick their lunchbox, pencil case and shoes, and they’ll feel more in control.
• Discuss what their first day is likely to entail. Tell them all about the fun they’ll have, the friends they’ll make and the games they’ll play.
• If at all possible, find out who’s going to be in your child’s class and fix a play date with them before school starts. That way there will be a friendly, familiar face waiting for them in the classroom each day and your leaving won’t have such an impact.
• Explain school by saying that it’s parents’ jobs to work and look after their families, and it’s children’s jobs to be pupils. Also remind them that all children have to go to school.
• Buy a selection of school-themed story books and read them before bed. Dianne Blomberg and George Ulrich’s Sam and Gram and the First Day of School tells the cheerful story of a boy’s first day at school, and has a section for parents at the back, while Ann Rockwell’s Welcome to Kindergarten charts a visit to an open-house day, where the little boy is scared by the size of the classroom at first but finishes the day thinking that it’s ‘just right’. Both available from www.amazon.com, or order from large bookshops like Magrudy’s.
• The night before their first day, throw a ‘happy school term’ party – cook their favourite meal, play some games and tell them about happy memories you have from your time at school. This should get them excited about what they’ll find when they get there, and create positive subconscious associations when they think of school. Don’t let the party go on too late, though – morning tiredness breeds tears at the best of times!
• From day one, establish a routine: get them up at the same time every morning, do things like eating breakfast, getting dressed and brushing their teeth in the same order, and leave at the same time. This will soon lead to a sense of familiarity with the school day.
• Let them take their favourite toy/blanket, and perhaps give them a small photo of the family for comfort.
• Try and befriend your child’s teacher. They will watch the two of you chatting and start to trust the teacher – who can also be a great source of advice on how to cope with separation anxiety.
• If all this fails and there are some tears, don’t panic! It’s perfectly normal and they’ll more than likely cheer back up five minutes after you’ve left; just make sure you’re well stocked up with tissues. Try not to apologise, prolong the goodbye, get angry or cry yourself, as this is likely to make them more upset and less trusting of the situation.
• Once you’ve walked out of the classroom, don’t be tempted to go back and check on them. If you really can’t leave without knowing they’re OK, get a teacher or another parent to look in for you – seeing your face will take them right back to square one.
• Tell the truth: saying ‘I’ll be back in a minute’ when you clearly won’t will breed mistrust – and whatever you do, don’t forget to pick them up at the end of the day! Talk about giving them reason to panic when you drop them off in the mornings… It’s surprising how often this can happen, especially when both parents work and have hectic lives, but it really is vital that you show up exactly when you said you would, so they know you’ll always be there for them when the end-of-the-day bell rings.
• If the school-induced tears continue after a week or so, talk to the teacher about giving them a special job to do (something simple like being in charge of cleaning the blackboard). It’ll give them a sense of purpose and distract them from their separation anxiety. It’s also worth thinking about establishing a rewards system, whereby you give them a small treat at the end of each tear-free day to show how proud you are of them.
For more information or advice, call the Human Relations Institute on 04 365 8498