Your not quite four year old is just commencing preschool and seems upset as you are about to leave. You are concerned this is separation anxiety.
I’m wondering if this is a new behaviour, or whether your child has always been a little reluctant in new situations.
To me, as a child grows older, it’s less likely to be separation anxiety, in the same sense as a child, and much more about their own personal concerns about how they will cope in the new environment. ie a normal response to a new situation.
What I notice is that often, it’s as much “separation anxiety” for the parent worrying about how their little one will do. Especially for the parents of gentle, sensitive and reserved children.
What can happen is that in our desire to protect them we inadvertently send a message that they should be scared of this new experience. (but it’s really our fear/worry/concern).
Not suggesting we throw them in the deep end, though is worth considering how much of this separation anxiety is driven by our concerns for them, rather than their’s by themselves.
With our more reserved children, especially, is the pre-frame about what is going to happen. The assurance that you’ll be back, your own certainty that the choice you are making in sending your child to school is the right one for now.
Then, if tears happen, is to accept that tears are part our emotionally regulation system, and that they are not always something to be concerned about. Tears are no always a sign of distress and that the choice we are making is not in our child’s best interest.
Our child relies on our certainty in order to catch their certainty.
Set up for success
Appreciate where on the development continuum your child is.
For the toddlers 2-3 year old, the way they process their world has large amounts of their experience which is deleted, distorted or generalised in order to enable them to keep lelarning new things. It’s a process that operates in us humans all the time, it’s that the younger we are the more input gets DDG’s into long term memory, so that we can keep adding to our operating memory. What it means is that even though we know there is not much to be concerned about for them, it can be like a whole new experience due to this process.
Then at around age four their brain goes through a huge change as the two sides of the brain integrate. What that means is, during this phase bridges (ie new neural pathways) are being built, and like road works, the new pathways may not yet join to the exact other end of the road way. Sometimes their experience is processed out of order, until the new pathways settle in and connect. In the mean time they are prone to over-reacting due to the way their brain is currently processing as the two sides of their brain integrate.
It is a normal part of their development, and how we respond to their behaviours and potential over reactions can make a huge difference to their ongoing experience, because neurons that fire together wire together. If we over react to their over-reaction, we can be reinforcing the over-reactivity neurology.
As the child of a highly anxious, over reactive mother, I suspect that is amongst the reasons that I became hyper vigilant, was that this development phase was pretty volatile. And because it happened without the support of my perspective, that my reactivity became wired into my system.
Talk through what is going to be going on. Seek clarity from your child about their thoughts. Be willing to validate their concerns. This is where many parents get caught, they want to minimise the concern, without appreciating that in doing that we smooth over or metaphorically dismiss our child’s concerns.
It’s being prepared to allow your child to experience a little distress in order to enable s/he to discover they are ok. It’s called building resilience. We can only build resilience through discovery. It might require collaboration with a team member at the centre to support through the process. (because we don’t want them to feel alone or abandoned, and equally we don’t want to rescue them from feeling the emotions either).
Even my wild child went through this when he first went to a big childcare centre. I was so surprised that he got so upset. Yet, as soon as I was out of sight, he would settle with the team member. It was just one too many changes in his short life at the time and he needed a little support to get through.
With yourself and them.
If this is the choice that must be made with going to school then set that intention for success and then take the steps to enable that to be the outcome.
Be open that if your child is at the younger end of the spectrum, that it can also be a maturity effect and therefore is this a response you ride out, or is it more appropriate to delay a little and withdraw until they are a little older.
In the end, only you can decide what will work best, though consider is this in alignment with the long term goals. What that means is, checking behind your choice, are you trying to solve a short term problem, ie that will take a little adjusting. Check in, will the choice contribute to long term problems, or align with your long term goals?
It’s not always easy, and I trust you find the way through.
If you are navigating figuring out how to support your overly sensitive or strong-willed child, and some guidance in how to empower you to parent with confidence would be of value. Then let’s connect.