Back-to-School Separation Anxiety: Kindergarten and College
Human beings, like other animals, have a considerable stake in the well-being of their offspring. When children are very young, a great deal of time and effort is invested in keeping them safe. Infants are kept close by and strangers are treated with certain wariness. The tendency to be guarded may become exaggerated or persist too long as a child grows up. Such a parent is said to be "overprotective."
There are a number of ways such a parent can inadvertently communicate fears to a child, who then, if such fears become pervasive, can develop an anxiety disorder. Certain ideas underlie a phobia, for instance. Somebody who is afraid of travelling away from home and more afraid as that person goes farther and farther can develop fears of driving, flying and getting lost. Someone afraid of strangers can become excessively worried about intruders—and sometimes kidnappers and terrorists. Often, these fears, which are described most commonly in adults, grow plainly out of difficulties separating from a parent that are apparent even in childhood.
A common scene the first day of kindergarten is of one or another child hanging on to his or her mother tearfully, afraid of being left alone with the other children and with the teacher. Most children are not discomforted by this first experience with school because most children have been leaving their mothers more and more throughout the previous years. But if a mother is overly concerned about a child being vulnerable away from home, that child is likely now to reflect that fear.
This familiar situation is always treated the same way. The child should always be encouraged to do what the other children are doing—going off, let's say, to play with the some toys in the next room. But if the child is too upset, the parent should stay with the child until he or she calms down. Then the parent will recede into the background and allow the child to be distracted by the other children. With very frightened children this process may take some time. It is important that the parent not get upset by this process.
Another common situation where children have trouble separating from their parents is at a later age when they have to get on a bus to take them to sleep-away camp. Some children cry; but I have seen mothers crying and unwilling to let their children board the bus.
The principles involved
This process of separating should be slow and patient, but firm. At every point the child should be encouraged to do what the other children do, taking into consideration that child's particular feelings. Go slow if the child is particularly upset. But make sure not to back down in the end.
Some parents are so afraid of their children leaving that they insist the child go to college nearby. I always argue as hard as I can against this idea. It is usually these children, in particular, who would profit from being in a college away from home. Very few children cannot make the adjustment if they are encouraged. Some are "homesick," of course, but usually homesickness lasts only a few weeks. Other fears fade away with time.
Think of all the tasks someone this age must undertake in the next few years:
- Learning to develop one's own values, perhaps different from those of his or her parents
- Learning how to make new friends
- Learning how to relate sexually
- Choosing interests, and eventually a purpose—that is, a career
All of these tasks have to do with separating from parents, and they must be accomplished over the next few years for someone to grow up.
This is not to say that parents say goodbye to a college age child casually, without misgivings and without a sense of loss. I don't think that is possible. But nowadays the children are at the other end of a cell phone, and so the process is not as abrupt as it seems. And they do come back safely. And as I can attest personally, even grandchildren come back safely.