Studio 5 Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Liz Hale, reminds parents that this is a common experience.
If the start of school has prompted the shedding of tears in your home, and those fallen tears belong to you, rest assured you’re not alone. Whether your “baby” is in kindergarten or college, this separation is often harder on YOU than on them!
I refer to these emotions as “Parental Separation Anxiety.” While we are usually aware of our children’s potential for separation and anxiety during the process of change, we tend to overlook our own anxiety and the impact that can have on our children. I received this e-mail from Lynette who speaks for many moms:
“I’m a first-time parent and my precious baby is off to her first day of Kindergarten. This is an incredibly tough transition for me but I don’t want it to affect her. Any suggestions for a very anxious mother?”
Lynette D., Kaysville
It is SO understandable for a parent to feel nervous and sad about new school beginnings. It signifies a leap in your child’s level of development and independence. And even though parents recognize this as something to be celebrated, it’s one of those moments of stark reality; “my child is growing older, she needs me less and less, and one day she’ll be leaving home for good, and soon we’ll be living completely independent and separate lives.” It’s often in the story-telling and the jumping ahead that causes the most anxiety.
Memorize the Moment
Capture the “firsts”! Be so busy recording them with your mind, cameras or video equipment that you concern yourself less with the future and your own pain, and more with savoring the moment right now! Notice their new surroundings. How have things changed from when you started grade school or college. Use all of your senses to ground yourself, if you don’t mind the term, to here-and-now. For anyone dealing with anxiety, this is a great tool. Notice the fragrances in the air, the colors and décor of the room, the sound of voices and excitement in the air, focus on the touch of a pencil – the sharp point at one end and the soft eraser at the other. Imagine tasting the foods that you loved when you were your child’s age: hot chocolate chip cookies, macaroni and cheese, or that one special cafeteria school dish you loved in college. And remember how excited/nervous you felt venturing out on that “first.” Use all 5 senses!
Parents set the precedence for how well-prepared a child is for school and that if mom or dad are excited, their kids will be excited. A parent can also transmit anxiety on to their child, as well. When a child notes that their parent is anxious or sad about the transition, they automatically presume, “Red alert! If my parent is scared, this is really gonna be bad and there must be something to be scared about!” It behooves us to normalize our own anxiety and better understand its etiology.
Question your “Separation Stories”
Separation anxiety is the fear of being separated from your loved one, fearing they won’t be all right while you’re apart, and that you may not ever be reunited with them, again. (Can’t you just hear the irrational thoughts?) Some parents fear what will happen when they leave their children in the care of new teachers or strangers they don’t know. Other parents relive their own childhood anxiety and place it onto their child. Parent’s even feel anxiety if they WANT their child to go back to school so they can have more time to themselves and get a break! Wanting relief makes some parents feel guilty if they believe they should be trying to hold to their children more tightly. This only further heightens anxiety for both parents and children! Journal your thoughts, question your irrational fears, and get to the root of what the anxiety is for you. Loss is one thing, debilitation is another. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if the anxiety doesn’t abate.
Pow-Wow with Other Moms
Just yesterday, I introduced my very dear college friend with another friend we ran into at a local store. Before too long, these two woman realized they had something very tender in common; they were both sending their 18-year-old sons off to their first-year of college. I was listening to their thoughts and feelings and trying to understand them but I didn’t really “get it” like these two dear mothers “got it”. Saying good-bye to their sons burned their very souls…..but there was something magical that happened in their sharing. Ruth finally said, “thank you for letting me talk about this…it really helps to articulate what I’m feeling and to have someone else really understand!” Both of my friends have sons and daughters and both stated that there is something different about having a son; there is a deep bond that, for them, words couldn’t fully describe. Too many times, Brooke, we believe in our society that we need to immediately stop feeling uncomfortable, emotional, sad, or depressed. Professionally speaking, the only way through something is to go through it….and go through it fully! Feel every emotion possible until it’s expunged. Use each other as sounding-boards so you can stay appropriate with your children. Don’t tell your kids how much you miss them, tell other moms! Let the main message to your kids be, “I just love you so much!” Never say, “It’s so lonely here without you! I don’t know what I’m going to do?!”
Get Busy and Productive
If your child is away for a semester, what do you want to accomplish between now and Christmas break? What home-project have you been wanting to get to but couldn’t because of your parental responsibilities…..consider this extra time as a golden opportunity. Or, perhaps you want to go back-to-school, as well, and take that class in Spanish, website design, or home remodeling. Set up activities for yourself and, even if you don’t want to, go through the motions anyway while you allow yourself time to adjust. Giving “birth” to a new creative endeavor can be healing and demonstrates that this is a new and exciting time in your life, as well.
Dr. Liz Hale is a clinical psychologist and a regular contributor on Studio 5. If you have questions for Dr. Liz about her weekly segments or her private practice, please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.