by Fran Hendrick, P.C.C

Separation Anxiety

2 Girls, 2 Stories, 2 Plans

by Fran Hendrick, P.C.C.

Sending your little girl off for the first day of preschool or kindergarten is not for the meek at heart! You’re not alone if you’ve been thinking about it for weeks and worrying about it when you’re meant to be sleeping. Even if your little one is feeling excited and confident, there’s still the issue of how you’re feeling!

For many moms, it’s a big wrench. You’ll no longer control your daughter’s entire environment; the rhythm of your day is changed; your role feels…confusing; and it might be just plain hard to imagine cheerfully waving, See you soon! without racing back home for a good cry.

Wait – this post is supposed to be about her separation anxiety, not yours! But I want to acknowledge both, because, especially if this is your first child – or your youngest – your life is changing, and she’s becoming a tiny bit more independent of you. That’s an adjustment on the inside for you, and for many moms it even feels like grieving. There are gains, too, of course — new opportunities for both of you, your daughter’s growing awareness and insight; all the new things she can do. Your relationship will grow as she grows, so while it’s true that babyhood is gradually fading, something new and wonderful is emerging. Still, even positive, exciting changes involve loss – and a few tears.

If your daughter is anxious about going to school, you’re probably stressed, too. And, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this age-old problem. That’s because there are a number of factors to consider, and they’re different for each child and each mom.

To sort this out, I’d like to introduce you to two spectacular little girls and their equally spectacular moms.  Definitely take a moment to download the “Mommy, I don’t want to go to school!” Strategy Sheet. This tool will walk you through creating your own plan to help your daughter.

Libby and Evie

When Libby and I began talking about separation anxiety, her daughter Evie, active, outdoorsy, and with a mischievous streak, was three years old. Libby, realizing that preschool wasn’t far off, had tried to prepare Evie by introducing her to the delightful playroom at her gym. Libby had a good feeling about the playroom teacher and had spent some time observing her before bringing Evie in to meet her. She had carefully explained to Evie that she would get to play in the playroom with Miss Lynn for a few minutes while Evie worked out. Evie was hesitant, but allowed herself to be taken to the playroom. She was interested in the colorful toys – but when it came time to say goodbye, she attached herself sobbing to Libby’s leg.

Libby, who had grown up in very painful circumstances and had truly been emotionally abandoned by her parents, could not stand for her child to experience the pain she still experienced due to that childhood emptiness. She comforted Evie, and they went home. Evie, who didn’t lean toward talking about her feelings, was glad to get home and get on with her day. But Libby well knew that preschool was looming, and she wanted to know how to help.

Anna and Zoe

Zoe was a very articulate five-year-old headed for kindergarten when her mom, Anna, found herself faced with the puzzle of how to help Zoe separate confidently and enjoy her time at school. Zoe was terribly sad about having to go to school, despite having visited and become familiar with her teacher and the classroom. She loved her books, pencils, and paper – at home, with mommy. Zoe’s fears felt alien to Anna, because she herself had welcomed the adventure of the school bus with confidence and even bravado.  It tore Anna’s heart to see her daughter so unhappy, and she worried that Zoe would be traumatized by this new demand on her. Besides that, she was afraid Zoe would make a scene and she would look like a Bad Mom. Zoe was sad, and so was her mom.

Could two little girls and their moms be more different? What helps each of them will be just as different as their temperaments and personalities are. So rather than throwing random tips your way, I’m going to give you a process for figuring out how to help. Figuring out what’s most helpful to each of your kids is a series of first tries and next tries, and that’s just fine.

1. Picture in your mind what you’re trying to accomplish.

I’m thinking that you want starting school to be exciting. You’d like your daughter to be able to separate confidently and to feel competent, safe, and secure as she acclimates to school. You hope she’ll make friends. I think you’d probably like her to feel that you’re on her side, that you’re working together as a team to help her.

Knowing what you’re going for will help you choose words and actions that will support your goals.

2.  Take a good look at your fears.

Before you can be a solid anchor for your daughter, you first have to understand your own fears. Libby was afraid that Evie would be overwhelmed by the kind of deep sadness she herself had felt as a child left to her own devices to handle all the difficulties of growing up. Libby needed some help to realize that Evie lived with reliable, gentle support from a caring mom – very different from Libby’s own childhood. A planned separation would not generate the same feelings in Evie that Libby had felt.

Anna, in contrast, feared that she would look and feel like a failure if Zoe had a meltdown. Further, she was afraid that this separation really might be too much for Zoe and would harm her emotionally. Anna began to understand that Zoe’s difficulties were simply signals indicating what help she needed from her mom in order to grow. Starting school might be difficult for Zoe, but it was not a reflection on Anna and certainly not a sign of having failed as Zoe’s mom. Further, she was able to see that she could monitor the situation and intervene if the challenge was more than Zoe could handle.

2. Accept your child’s fears

No fear ever went away because someone said it was “nothing to be afraid of” any more than the order to “calm down!” have ever calmed anyone down. Instead of seeking to talk your daughter out of her fear, dive in and try to understand what her fears are. If she can’t put them into words, take your best guess. There are a number of fears that we’re all susceptible to – including fear of the unknown (starting school), fear of rejection (not being liked), fear of feeling stupid (not knowing what to do); and fear of failing (doing it all wrong). You can see that each of these suggests a direction to take to help your daughter.

4. Make a plan that utilizes your daughter’s strengths.

Remember first tries and next tries? Your plan is your first try. Your revisions are your next tries. Whatever plan you devise, it should help you achieve the goals you envisioned.



Here’s what Libby and Anna decided to do.

Once she realized that helping Evie separate was absolutely not abandonment, Libby decided to continue taking her to the playroom at the gym. She began by sitting in the playroom with Evie, but not participating or even interacting with her. Soon she was able to leave for a few minutes with Evie’s agreement, gradually increasing her stays from 5-10 minutes to a half hour or more.  When it came time for preschool, she steeled herself for whatever sidelong glances might come from the other mothers or the teacher and used the same strategy. Within two days, Evie was sending her on her way and enjoying her mornings in preschool.

Anna took a different approach with her analytical daughter. Once she realized that Zoe’s fears did not signify her success or failure as a mom, she was free to empathize with Zoe. Zoe was extremely capable verbally, and the two read books about school and talked about what would happen in school, who would help her, and how each day Mommy would be waiting for her at the bus stop. Anna got Zoe a school bus to use to play out all her fears. She anticipated and answers Zoe’s concerns about what she was supposed to do and what would happen if she did something wrong. They talked about first tries and next tries. All of this strengthened Zoe enough to get on the bus. Next Anna introduced the concepts of time and scale – how long and how much. After school, Anna asked Zoe, “How long were you sad today? Was it a big sad? Medium-sized?” Zoe proudly realized that her sad times where shorter and smaller. She glowed with her accomplishment.

By understanding how to devise very different approaches tailored to their daughters’ unique needs and strengths, both Anna and Libby were able to help grow their children’s confidence so they could successfully take the leap into their new schools.

Coming next: What if, for the first time, my daughter isn’t in the same class as her BFF and seems lost?

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