Emily C. Courtney, PsyD
I am fortunate enough to have a brilliant collection of friends whom I call “The Tribe.” They are a mish-mosh of all different types of folks with different ways of living and being, and I absolutely adore them because each and every one of them is magnificent in their own way.In my Tribe, we all have dealings with children. Be it our own, our nieces, our nephews, our neighbor’s kids …it matters not. My Tribe takes care of – and tends to – all of the children in our lives; and let me tell you…there is a lot of anxiety when it comes time to send the wee ones off to school. Every single member of the Tribe has some sort of nervous anticipation around this topic.
We all have had difficult moments with this rite of passage.
I want you to take a moment and breathe that in…it happens to us all.
There is not a parent/friend/relative/guardian on the planet, not a soul who loves and cares for children who has not experienced the stress and anxiety regardingthe relinquishment of control over a child.
Now, there are going to be people out there who tell you that it’s a piece of cake…that both they and their child are just smiling and perfect every day. Everyone is cleaned, dressed, lunches packed, homework finished, love is in the air and everything is stunning, beautiful, and practically perfect in every way.
Liar-Liar, pretty perfect Mary Poppins pants on fire.
I’ll get back to the flaming Poppins pants in a moment.
Just among my small Tribe there is an impressive assortment of physical and psychological symptoms that go hand-in-hand with school (as well as for the working parent – surrendering a chunk of your child’s care over to another so you can work is just as difficult!). The children in our group range from infants to pre-teens. Some of the parents stay home to care for their children, some work and have to rely on daycare to look after their youngest. Symptoms of anxiety expressed by my circle of peoplethis most recent summer-to-school transition range from:
· Eating too much
· Drinking too much
· Falling back into other unhealthy habits
· Stomach problems (nausea/diarrhea)
· Weight gain
· Skin problems
· Headaches, toothaches, leg cramps
· Restless sleep/too much sleep/not sleeping enough
· Ripping out flooring/tile/wallpaper/chunks of lawn/bushes/trees
· And the worry…worry…WORRY!!
And that’s just the adults! As for the children in our group, there has been an array of tummy complaints, headaches, poor sleep, acting out, junk food cravings, extra whining and crying and an overall upping of the standard kiddo manipulation scale into overdrive.
And guess what? Every last bit of that is perfectly normal. Around this time of the year, if you start to Google “school a…,” or “child a…,” it will fill in the blanks and offer you up thousands of topics concerning anxiety. Even here at the Tarnow centerwe have already addressed this in blogs here and here and here. Everyone just loses their marbles a little bit when it comes to school, daycare, and letting go. I wouldn’t be writing yet another blog on the topic if it wasn’t a real thing.
It’s okay. Really, it is. You are never, ever alone in feeling this way, and neither are your children. Stress, anxiety and fear happen.
Back to the earlier topic of the flaming Poppins pants – I am all for searching out for support and information on the internet, I really am. However, beware the unhelpful sort who poo-poos your anxiety as a weakness, or accuses you of poor parenting. Be wary too of the Mary Poppins of Motherdom/Fatherdom for who all runs smoothly and whose world is a living Pinterest board of free-range, color-coordinated, sushi’d bento boxes and hand-stitched Hungarian Mayto culottes.
One should especially be on thelookout for the most awful of the internet unhelpfuls…The Trolls. If you find yourself already feeling fractured, some of these people can shatter you. Beware. Our own Dr. Walker Peacock has addressed these types in a piece he has written for the center called “Lord of the Trolls” and you can find it here.
Having said all of that, there are times when it really is too much to bear and the symptoms of the stress are taking a toll. Be it you, your partner, your children, or your entire family. When the weight of it all becomes a burden in daily functioning, that’s when we at the Tarnow Center are here to help.
The following is a list of symptoms that can be exhibited by you or your child. Before you read, please remember that most of these are perfectly normal, human responses to stressors. However, when they begin to impede your way of life – then it is time to ask for help.
Trouble with sleep.
Increase in unhealthy coping behaviors (gaming, drinking, eating/not each, etc.)
Worrisome thoughts that cannot be controlled or assuaged.
Repeated need for assurance that everything will be okay/expecially clingy and needy.
Excessive checking to make sure everything is in order.
Excessive repetition of directions, schedules, rules, etc.
Physical complaints (typically gastrointestinal distress, headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, etc.)
Irritability or mood swings/picking fights with parents/siblings/partner.
Refusal to talk about school/tantrums upon hearing "daycare" or "school"
Defiant refusals of school/pleas not to be taken to school/calls to be picked up early from school.
To reiterate, it is not necessarily the symptom itself that is problematic (albeit as annoying as it is), it’s the intensity and longevity of the symptoms that should trigger your attention that there might be a problem that needs to be tended to.
Specifically, separation anxiety is a very common problem for preschool children, especially during the first few weeks of school. A preschool child is at the age wherethey are learning to negotiate their independence, which is a concept that is both exciting and scary at the same time. When a young child begins to grasp that they are their own person with wants and needs that are separate from yours, there is also the terrifying realization that you may not always be by their side. Going to preschool or daycare can make this last point painfully clear, which might result in your child becoming anxious about you getting out of sight at all…anywhere!
Some tips for cutting down on separation anxiety are:
Remember that children pick up on your mood!! This is so important that I want to shout it from the rooftops. Believe me, I know how difficult it can be to tamp down your feelings, but your children will rev up if you are revved up. They look to you for signals that something in the world is either dangerous or helpful. If you are nothing but nerves, giant pupils and clenched teeth, your little one will be thinking, “If my parent can’t handle my going to daycare, how in the world am I supposed to handle it?!?!”
Do not automatically assume that your child is worried or that they will have separation anxiety. If you ask them leading questions like, “Are you worried about starting preschool and being away from mommy?” you can bet your boots they are going to start being worried if they weren’t all ready! Try to remain positive. Make comments about how proud of are of them; how brave, strong, smart, adventurous, etc. they are. Really dig deep for positive ways you can use words to help your child associate change with excitement and positivity!
Finding the best school/preschool/daycare can be daunting. It can be stressful, financially draining, and outright frustrating. Do the absolute best that you can do to find a great fit for your child. Finding the right environment for your child (as you well know!) is extremely important. Do your best, and if you do have to settle for a bit, it’s okay. Breathe deep. You did great. It will be okay.
Prepare ahead of time for each day and have a routine. It will be tough if you are busy and it seems like you get the kids home only to put them to bed and start all over…but please trust that having everything ready to go in the morning will make that transition easier for everybody involved and it is worth the extra effort.
Do not drag out the separation process. Take your child to the classroom, give hugs, kisses love and tell them what time you’ll be back, and then leave. Do not stay or return if your child begins to cry. You might feel like a horrible person who has just sold your child to gypsies, but remember…both you and your child are resilient and strong, and it will be just fine. Breathe in, breathe out.
Plan ahead about how you will handle your own feelings about leaving your child. Go through it in the shower, as you cook dinner, or while you’re folding laundry. The more solid in the plan you are, they more likely you will be able to stick to the script. And no, I did not just give you permission to perseverate worrisome thoughts. Mindful planning and obsessive planning are two different creatures. Choose the creature with the smallest teeth.
Do your absolute best to pick up your children at the same time every day. Life happens, I know, but children love a good schedule. Even if you have the opportunity to pick them up early, perhaps use that extra bit of time to read a chapter in that book you’ve been meaning to start, or take a nice walk in the park, or even just sit in the car for a few minutes and “be.” If pickup is at six, try to keep it at six. Consistency breeds comfort and trust.
After all of these tips, bullets, suggestions and stories, the fact of the matter is sometimes we need to ask for help. Within my Tribe there are those who are on medication for anxiety and depression, some are in therapy, and even a few of the children have become so worried and anxious they too are in therapy. It happens. Their support needs ebb and flow, as life does. Some times are easier, others not so much. Tide of troubles in, tide of troubles out.
If the tide comes in and you find yourself crushed under the swirling weight of it all, we are here to help. The Tarnow Center offers several treatment modalities and options and many caring professionals on our team who can tend to the needs of any member of your family who might need us. Please call us any time at (713) 621-9515.
Personally, I have recently come on board to tend to the needs of your youngest family members. Along with our other staff members, we will treat your entire family as the living organism it is, and together your child and I will explore their troubles through verbal and non-verbal therapies to help tease out the knots that may be impeding their development and/or functioning. And although I might not be Mary Poppins, I won’t float away should the wind change direction.
However, I might just know where to find tap dancing penguins...