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Separation anxiety: How to leave your child for the first time

It’s nearly back-to-school time and that means that some children will be starting school for the first time, others will be moving to new schools and most will be moving up an academic year to new classroom surroundings and a new teacher.

Now, I’m a confident thirty-something woman but even I get a bit apprehensive when I try something new. It’s normal for even the most outgoing of people so it must be incredibly scary for a young child entering a completely new environment.

Luckily,  most teachers are very used to dealing with separation anxiety and they have time-tested procedures to allow children to adapt as easily as possible and integrate into the class successfully. But what about us mums?

I have to confess that I am pretty firm when it comes to leaving my children in new environments. Years of teaching at Perform have shown me that the experience is generally far worse for the parent than the child. Even if the child is kicking and screaming “Don’t leave me, Mummy”, they are normally distracted within minutes and, while they are jumping around pretending to be a superhero,  the mum is most likely in the car crying and feeling dreadfully guilty.

One story which I always tell at our training is when we had a little boy who attended our Islington class then taught by Simon Fielding (who is now our wonderful Regional Partner). Little John would kick up a HUGE fuss every week, crying, sobbing and clinging to his equally worried mother. However, once he was in the class and his mum was out of sight, he’d stop, join in and have an amazing time. The tears would return when mum returned and,  even though Simon reassured her that he was really enjoying it, she never fully believed him.  Simon, desperate to prove what was really going on, snuck the mum into the room adjacent to the hall and let her watch without John knowing. She saw her son joining in, laughing and totally involved and that was that. Her attitude changed and John never played her up again.

Children are extremely  sensitive to our moods and feelings so, if a parent is nervous or anxious, that transmits to the child and they become so too. Even if we are saying the right things, they can sense it from our body language or hear it in our voices. So, if you are feeling nervous about your child starting school or doing a new activity, it is crucial that you do your best not to convey this to them. If you are anxious, they’ll sense it and they'll be anxious too.

At Perform, when a parent books their child for a free session, as well finding out about the usual allergies and other medical issues, we also take extensive details about the child’s personality and their likes and dislikes. The teacher in charge will then call the parent the day before to talk through the notes we've made and to reassure them that they are bringing their child to a professional, organised and safe environment. We are there to answer any of their questions and, even though the parent is not allowed inside the class, they can sit in the waiting area and we'll feed back throughout in order to keep them involved and informed.

And this is really the key. If everything is transparent and all the lines of communication are kept open, most situations are quickly turned around. In our case,  if our teacher knows that the child is going to be apprehensive about coming in, they will adapt their behaviour. Even better,  if the mum tells our teacher that the little boy loves Fireman Sam, you can bet that the child will be greeted with some sort of fireman joke or reference to relax them.

So, for all parents out there who might be feeling apprehensive about leaving your child for the first time, here are my Top Ten Tips to making the experience as positive as possible for you and your child.

Thoroughly check out where you are sending them before you go. Question the teachers/company and speak to other parents who send their children there. There are normally lots of reviews on family-type websites to read and a good organisation will always be happy to answer any questions you may have.
If you think you are going to be nervous about leaving your child, then ask your husband/friend/parents to take them. Whatever you do, don’t go and feel worried yourself as your child will feed off that.
Prepare your child. Up to a week before, tell them that a brilliant time they are going to have when they go to the class and make it really positive.
If your child is still really nervous, see if a friend can join them to give them support.
Make sure your child has had a good night’s rest and isn’t hungry or tired before their first class.
Make sure they are wearing the right clothes so that they feel comfortable.
If you feel that they might need a little ‘push’ on the day then promise them a little present to celebrate their achievement. There’s no harm in a little bribery for the greater good!
Even if they are really adamant that they don’t want to go, try to think what will really benefit them in the long run. Five minutes of tears must be worth them learning a new skill or developing great social skills.
Be firm and friendly when you say goodbye to your child. Show them that Mummy is cool with it.
Trust and work with the teachers. They do this every day. They will be experts.

I hope that these tips are useful. I'd love to hear your own ideas and comments.

Leave a comment

    From mumof2
    Ali, you're probably ok now, but I just wanted to say ask the teacher. Most teachers are ok to spend a minute or so at the end of the school day or you could make an appointment with them. They're used to "paranoid parents" and won't mind, just shows you care after all. Hope your daughter is still enjoying her new school.
    From Ali
    Wat can i do 4myself?My daughter has just gone in2 yr1 at a new school+the lack of information about wat they get up2at school,how she is etc,is doing my head in.i want/need more parent involvement/communication but don't want 2appear like a paranoid mother who cant let her daughter go (even tho that is EXACTLY wat i am!).

    Wat do i do?My daughter seems fine-but its me... Pls help,
    From Lucy Quick
    Thanks Nick, I'm glad you enjoyed it.
    From Nick Jackson
    It was really an interesting post, I enjoyed it completely. Helps a lot of mums to take the change in positive way.

    Nick @ http://www.danceconnectionnj.com/childrens_dance_classes.php
    From Mummy Zen
    Really helpful to read this post Lucy. My son is starting nursery in a few weeks and I'm worried he'll find it tough to settle in after being used to being around mum all the time. We've been talking about it lots and reading story books about nursery and he seems happy and excited about it for now... He's just not used to being left with other people so I guess it will be a matter of him learning that I'll be back at the end of each morning :-). I will definitely use your tips to be as best prepared as we can be!
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