Remember when you started your first day of work at a new workplace? Or the time when you started on the first job? Or your first day as the freshman in your university days? Or even your first day in a secondary school after being in the same primary school for six years? As one looks back and reflects upon the many years before, one will start to realize there are more “first days” than one can ever imagine.
Even with the amount of experience with our “first days”, we still go through them with much excitement and apprehension, though with less intensity over the years. Can you imagine how daunting and scary it may be for our children, who are embracing their first day of school, maybe for the first time in their lives? Excessive fear or worry about separation from parents, exhibited by children during the first few days of the school, is termed as “separation anxiety” ("Separation Anxiety", n.d). We may have heard this term before, but what really is Separation Anxiety? And how can we help our children get through this rite of passage, to navigate through their first day of school with a positive learning experience?
What is Separation Anxiety?
We first need to recognize that separation anxiety is a normal stage in a child’s development; like other forms of anxiety, it serves the function of protecting oneself against unforeseen dangers. Children perceives their parents as their safe attachment figures, who will protect them from danger and care for their needs when needed. Hence, when this safe attachment figure is no longer around, the alarms within them will start to trigger and they started to experience this “separation anxiety”.
"We first need to recognize that Separation anxiety is a normal stage in a child’s development."
This separation anxiety will usually end when:
Children understand that his/her parent may be out of sight right now, but he/she will return later ("Separation Anxiety", n.d.) and;
There is no real danger in their current situation right now and in fact, they are being protected and cared for by another adult, namely, their teachers.
Clearing the myths about “separation anxiety”
If we allow ourselves to be really honest, it may be equally overwhelming for some of the parents, who are letting go of their child to the care of someone else for the very first time. It didn’t help when the stories parents usually hear of are about how children usually kept crying, throwing temper tantrums during the first day of school. It brings in more fear and apprehension, especially for first-time parents. As a result, we may subconsciously project our fears and anxiety upon our little ones, who may, in turn, dread this first day of school as much as we do (Eberhardt, n.d.).
Often, parents may tend to feel guilty for leaving him/her crying after saying goodbye (Eberhardt, n.d.). Parents need to understand that this journey of coping with separation anxiety is part of an individualisation process, where the child learn and grow to be an independent person (Eberhardt, n.d.). We should assist and encourage our child’s independence, rather than hinder or deprive them of it. By giving the child the opportunity to grow out of this separation anxiety on their own means may create more love instead (Eberhardt, n.d.).
"The journey of coping with separation anxiety is part of an individualisation process, where the child learn and grow to be an independent person... "
On the other hand, some parents may view this hassle and tussle on the first day of school as part of growing up and just let the child handle on his/her own. It is true that most children, over time, will learn to adapt and find ways to manage on their own. However, for some children, they may experience beyond normal levels of separation anxiety. Everyone is different and we all respond to stress and anxiety differently. In certain cases, it may be too overwhelming for the child to handle on his/her own. As a result, this anxiety would interfere with his/her friendships, result in sustained physical illness, lead to school refusal, or even beyond age-appropriate level of anxieties (Krewlow, 2018). In such cases, more targeted help from counsellors and psychologists may be necessary.
How to better support our child?
Hence, we should strike a balance in our role in preparing our child for this big day of theirs. Providing them with sufficient guidance and encouragement helps them to be more prepared for what is to come. Yet at the same time, they are also given ample space to learn and adapt accordingly to the situation, so that they can learn how to grow out of the anxiety by their own means.
Here are four tips (Bilich & Cohen et. al., n.d.) on how to better support our child for their first day of school:
1. Familiarize your child with school environment and classroom activities
If possible, bring your child to the new school environment even before school starts. Let your child be familiar with the environment
Introduce some of the common classroom activities such as storytelling, drawing at home
Introduce your child to his/her teacher
Using pictures, drawings, storybooks to mentally rehearse what he/she can expect being in school
2. Send your child with a discreet memento to bring comfort to them on this first day
Lunch box with his/her favourite snack
Favourite toy kept safely in his/her backpack
Blanket Statement, a tiny piece of their favourite blanket/cloth that can be kept in his/her pockets and touch when she needs a pick-up
Digital watch to serve as a reminder that you are picking him up at the agreed timing.
3. Create a ritual of saying goodbye
It is usually hard to say goodbye especially when your child is clinging onto you, begging you not to leave him/her alone. Hence, one may be tempted to quietly leave your child without saying goodbye, to avoid the crying scene. However, this will risk his/her trust in you (Krewlow, 2018). It is also tempting to linger around after saying goodbye to check on how your child is doing. However, usually the longer one stays, the harder it is to leave. It may even teach your child that their tears will keep you with them (Krewlow, 2018).
Instead, create a ritual to prepare the child that you are leaving will help over time. Some examples of goodbye rituals may include giving a goodbye kiss, share a hug, sing a goodbye song and waving goodbye from the window (Luckenbill, n.d.). This ritual can be practiced beforehand, and once it is consistently done, the child will learn and expect goodbye to come after the ritual.
4. Be on time.
Lastly, be on time to pick up your child (Luckenbill, n.d.). If you agreed to pick him up on 5pm, be at the school at 5pm. This will help him/her to trust you better. He/she will learn that the separation from you is temporal and by the agreed timing, he/she will see you again.
With sufficient preparation for the new transition ahead, you and your child can look forward to embracing changes and challenges with less anxiety and more assurance that it will all work out well at the end.
Bilich, K. A.; Cohen, I.; and editors of Parents Magazine (n.d.). Overcoming Separation Anxiety on the First Day of School. Retrieved on 26th Dec 2019 from Parents magazine: https://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/starting-preschool/separation-anxiety/overcoming-separation-anxiety/
Eberhardt, S. (n.d.) Separation Anxiety on First Day of School as a part of individuation. Retrieved on 26th Dec 2019 from Whitby School Blog: https://www.whitbyschool.org/passionforlearning/separation-how-to-handle-that-first-day-of-school
Krewlow, L. L. (August 28, 2018). Separation Anxiety: Dos and Don'ts to Help your child (and you) to be Brave. Retrieved on 26th Dec 2019 from GoZen: https://gozen.com/separation-anxiety-dos-and-donts-to-help-your-child-and-you-be-brave/
Luckenbill, J. (n.d.) 11 Ways to help our Children Say Goodbye. Retrieved on 31st Dec 2019 from National Association for the Education of Young Children: https://www.naeyc.org/our-work/families/help-children-say-goodbye
Separation Anxiety (n.d.) Retrieved on 31st Dec 2019 from Psychology Today Singapore: https://www.psychologytoday.com/sg/conditions/separation-anxiety
About the Author
Hui Shan is the Head of Operations in Grace Oasis Counselling Services. Prior to this, she was a teacher with the Ministry of Education (MOE) with over 10 years of teaching experience in local schools. She believes in the potential of every child and the greater role of an educator, apart from knowledge impartation, is character development. This involves the partnership between school and parents to equip, guide and nurture their child to acquiring invaluable life skills.