I am the mother of a sensitive three-year-old boy who will be starting pre-school soon. He is very attached to me, and has never been away from me for more than 2 hours at a time - while I go grocery shopping – but then he’s with my husband. I am afraid that he will not be able to handle being away from me for almost half a day. What can I do to help my baby through this time?
From Attached Mother
Congratulations to your son for becoming a pre-schooler! What an exciting time for your family!
With each change in life comes a certain amount of uncertainty and anxiety. This is natural. What I sense from your letter is that it is you who is a bit “sensitive” about separating from your son.
“Separation anxiety” is the term typically used to describe a situation when a child is dependent on, and cannot let go of, a parent to become a more independent person. This term, however, can sometimes be applied to a parent who for various reasons cannot let go of the child. You referring to your three-year-old son as a “baby” shows that you may wish to do a bit of introspection into yourself to determine why this time is challenging for you. Understand your insecurities and take steps to overcome them.
Children sense their parents’ anxiety and most times model their behavior. Instead of looking at this time with dread and as potentially dangerous, why not look at it as an exciting time, an adventure, an opportunity for growth, for both your son and for yourself.
Like any successful adventure, adapting to pre-school also requires a bit of pre-planning. First of all, you could gradually break this separation anxiety by taking and leaving your son with a baby-sitter (someone your child does not already know) a couple times per week. At first your son may cry when he sees you leaving him, but after a few times seeing that you always return to pick him up, he will become confident that the separation is only temporary and that your return is imminent.
You could also do a little research and find other children in the neighbourhood who will also be attending the same school. Call up their mothers and set up play dates through which the children could meet and become friends before school begins. At the first day of class, when your son sees familiar faces, he will be better able to adjust to his environment.
Becoming familiar with the physical environment of the school would also help your son adjust better when school begins. Take your son (ideally with other pre-school children and their mothers) to the school. Show him where his class will be, where you will drop him and pick him up; play with him in the playground in which he will play. Allow him to personalize the school, to feel that it is his school.
Since some children are not used to waking up early in the morning, perhaps you could for one week before pre-school begins send your son to bed and raise him at the times he would typically sleep and wake when he begins school. Give him breakfast at a scheduled time and take him to school for a play date. In this way you will be helping your son develop a routine, and a routine would create safety in his life.
Above all, you should feel safe and take comfort in knowing that your son, and children in general, is resilient and will adapt very well to situations, whether it be presently adjusting to pre-school or adjusting to leaving home to attend university in the future.
Published in Canadian Immigrant, October, 2010