Starting school these days is not your grandmother’s school entry. Preschool is old hat with children now starting school in pre-preschool - some even in baby groups. Many factors brought about this change, among them mothers at work out of the home and consequent changes in family life. With provisions for childcare lagging behind, schools and various kinds of groups for children are filling the gap.
These changes have also brought about a need for children to enter “school” without the presence of a parent or caregiver at younger and younger ages. The problem is that children’s development hasn’t changed - it is the world they live in that has changed and we are trying to help them adjust. An early focus of attention in that adjustment has been the separation process of children from their parents.
Thinking about early separation of children from their parents has been somewhat distorted by the specter of separation anxiety. A developmental step that is part of normal development has become a sign that something is wrong - something to worry about. Infants express stranger anxiety at around eight months of age as they become aware of the difference between mother and others. They may become upset or withdrawn when approached by a “stranger.”
This can also become apparent in the two- to three-year-old period as children struggle with the realization that they and mother are separate beings. The behavior that children show when separated from mother is often an expression of anxiety about control over their own impulses. Children at that stage are involved in a struggle between their own wishes and the wishes of their parents. They still need the presence of a parent to reassure themselves about their own behavior.
How will they behave in this group of strangers? Will anyone there know what they want or need? How comfortable are you as an adult walking into a cocktail party or other group of strangers and entering into the mingling or conversations? What a relief to see someone you know. That process is challenging but as adults we have learned how to deal with such situations and have strategies for coping or prevailing. Two-year-olds are at the start of that learning process.
Programs which are geared to the development of young children understand this. They generally allow for a gradual separation process and/or permit parents to stay longer as needed. As children form relationships with teachers or group leaders, they learn that other adults will also help them and are better able to function in a group setting without a parent or familiar caregiver present.
This process will differ from child to child. One of the side-effects of having your child in a group is comparing the behavior of your child to that of others. However, children differ from each other in all areas of development. Some children talk earlier than others, some are more physically agile. Personalities differ - some children are more outgoing, some more reserved, some more assertive, some children are watchers who learn from observing before doing, while others plunge in.
The same is true of readiness to separate from a parent. This readiness is not a sign of how smart or well-adjusted a child is or how successful a parent is. Often children who seem to separate without any difficulty express the stress they feel in other ways, such as night wakenings or resistance to leaving home in the morning. That, too, is just part of the process and children can move forward with parental understanding and support.
Even children who protest separating at first, separate at last.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.