Occasionally, since he started kindergarten, my middle son has cried, clung to me and asked me not to leave.
His separation anxiety would last for two or three days in a row and I felt quite sad about it and helpless about supporting him. All I could think of to do was to extract myself with as few tears as possible, but that was distressing him even more and it felt very painful for me.
A few months ago, I had a breakthrough. He was four and a half and his separation anxiety had started to re-appear. After three or four days of clinginess at drop-off, it crossed my mind to staylisten to him. I hoped this would ease the separation.
The next morning, I made sure I had nothing scheduled and I made a mental plan about what would happen before dropping the kids to kindergarten. I wanted to be prepared for whatever he was going to show me.
I accompanied my two other kids to their classrooms and then returned to my son, who was patiently waiting. I asked him if he was ready to go in his classroom or if he needed a few moments with me. He wanted to stay with me, so we walked back outside to the car. On the way, I told him that I would stay with him for a while and then I would ask him to go inside.
That's when he started crying.
In the car, he sat on my lap and he continued to cry. After about 10 minutes, he calmed down a bit and then I told him in a soft voice that when he felt ready, I would accompany him and we would go to his classroom. (For more on why you don't need to say much when your child cries, read What to Say During Staylistening).
He started again to cry and apart from gently caressing his hair every now and then, I didn’t say or do anything else. When he quieted down again, I told him once more that when he’d feel ready, I would lead him inside.
After about 30 minutes of listening, I started feeling uneasy and had an impulse to stop him from crying.
I knew this would hurt his feelings and also harm the process, so I closed my eyes, tried to detach myself from his crying.
As I focused on my feelings, I realized that I was becoming worried because breakfast would be finished by the time we got inside. If we stayed in the car for much longer, my son would have had to wait another two hours until his next meal.
I thought some more, and decided I wanted to continue staylistening to him, but I also needed to make sure he had some sort of breakfast. When he was a bit calmer, I told him that I could see that he still needed some time with me but explained that breakfast was about to finish. I suggested that I'd go get him two sandwiches and come right back.
He said that he wanted to come with me and forcefully grabbed my hand. It felt like he was afraid I was going to leave him in the cafeteria. Once we had the food, we started back for the car.
With mission accomplished, I felt relaxed again and ready for some more staylistening. But when we got back in the car, my son started eating happily. I decided to see how he felt inside, so I suggested that he join his friends as they walked from the cafeteria back to the classroom.
He just nodded and continued eating, and I took this as a sign that he was feeling comfortable.
Indeed, when his friends and the teacher passed by our car on their way to the classroom, my son jumped from my lap, gave me a quick kiss and then went on his way!
Thinking back to that moment, I feel so happy that I stayed with my son. It felt useful and supportive for him. I felt warm toward him and maybe he felt warmth toward me. Since that morning, about four months ago now, my son has never hesitated about going inside his classroom again.
Why it Works:
Pent up fears can surface as Separation Anxiety. Allowing your child to cry away those fears in your presence builds feelings of trust, safety and connection that restores children to their brighter more confident selves. Staylistening can be used to ease a lot of common parenting challenges in the same way, from swimming to Using the Potty. You can find lots more to help in Your Ultimate Separation Survival Guide
If you are Losing Patience with Separation Anxiety read this.
Discover more about Staylistening and four other simple tools to make parenting less stressful in 5 Revolutionary Ideas That Make Parenting Less Stressful.