I arrive with a crying 4 year old attached to my leg — stressed, exhausted and feeling like I’m the worst parent in the world. Everyone else’s children are already at kindy. Not crying. Not clinging to a leg.
“She doesn’t want to come,” I say to a teacher, desperately hoping she has a magic pill that makes my child turn into one of the other happily playing, well-adjusted children around me.
“Yes. We could hear her screaming in the parking lot.” She gives me a look. I feel like she’s just handed me my parenting grade and it’s an F.
Hmm. Can I crawl into a hole about now?
Your crying, clingy child is just being normal
I know now (I wish someone had told me then!) that I’m not the only parent who has experienced this. Separation anxiety is incredibly normal and healthy in children even up to the age of 7. Our children are attached to us. They rely on us. So for them to get upset when we leave is very normal. But at the time it felt terrible. It felt like I was causing my child emotional harm.
But, in fact, if we deal with it well it can do the opposite.
Instead of causing them harm, separation anxiety can help kids. It can develop resilience, self-esteem and coping skills. Times of separation give them a chance to practice dealing with stress and anxiety. It teaches them “I can cope with this!”
That screaming, crying child attached to our ankles is learning that they are a person who can handle what life throws at them. That you trust them to cope.
But why do some kids seem to cope so much better with separation?
Both of my youngest children hated leaving my side (my eight year old still has a little bit of trouble). The screaming lessened to complaining as they got older but they definitely struggled a lot with separation anxiety. Once, my Lula hid under a desk crying at kindy for over 30 minutes after I left.
I almost gave up on preschool a number of times. They weren’t even going that often. Three half-days a week maximum! I persevered because I needed time out, I wanted them to have social interactions and make friends, and because they always loved it afterwards. When I picked them up they never wanted to leave! So why all the fuss at the start?
My kids are older now and I’ve learnt a few things about them. One of those is that both of my youngest daughters are in the 15-20% of the population who are considered highly sensitive. It’s not a negative thing. It’s just a normal personality trait.
Highly sensitive people feel their emotions very strongly. They have a bit more difficulty dealing with change and loud busy environments. And they are very affected by things others might not be bothered by. Movies are difficult for us. Even the slightest scary or violent scene — even in G rated movies — can start my girls screaming “Turn it off!”
Highly sensitive children are very sensitive to others’ feelings and can be very observant. They’ll be the one that notices when you’re sad and gives you a hug. They get really upset by kids being mean to each other. My daughter, Little, talked for months about some boys at kindy that called another child names. She was highly offended. Highly sensitive children are the ones that grow up to defend the weak and point out the injustices in the world. They are the ones that notice beauty in things and think deeply. They are pretty amazing people.
If your child is the one screaming, clingy and crying perhaps they are just a bit more sensitive.
And that’s a good thing! It’s not something wrong with your child. You can stop worrying! They are not broken. They are incredible people who feel their feelings strongly and are super aware of the world around them.
So what can we do to help our kids settle in better?
- Acknowledge their feelings, but don’t let them control your behaviour. “You’re sad because you want me to stay. I’ll be back in two hours. I can’t wait to hear what you did today.” You are the adult. You control what happens, not them. Kids will try to keep you there and control you by crying, screaming, begging, and clinging. However, they actually feel safer when we are in control.
- Make it normal. “I know you have a hard time with goodbyes. I love that you’re such a cuddly boy. I can’t wait to see you again when I pick you up.” (Smile and quick hug)
- Leave quickly and confidently, ignore their pleas to keep you there and trust that they will be okay.
- Don’t sneak away. Always say “Bye, see you soon!” Sneaking away can make kids more clingy next time.
There are four stages your child will move through
So that you can be confident that they are okay, there are four stages of separation anxiety for you to be aware of. If your child is happy when you pick them up, then you know they have moved through these stages.
- Protest stage — screaming, crying, and complaining to try and keep you there.
- Despair — usually after you leave. They might drop to the floor, hide, or cry.
- Adjustment — they calm down.
- Emotional detachment — they get engaged in a game, toy or talking with someone.
When I picked up my girls they were happy to see me. They would race around telling and showing me what they have been up to. They were fine. No emotional damage done.
By trusting our children to move through these stages, we allow them to learn to cope with stress well and to head towards becoming the resilient, confident adults we want them to eventually be. We get an A in parenting! Well done us!
So next time they make a fuss, cling and cry, have a quiet smile to yourself. Here’s a chance for your wonderful child to learn and grow. Acknowledge their feelings, say goodbye and then get out of there fast!
Until next time!