September brings a flurry of activity for parents in getting children ready for new beginnings: a daycare, school, teacher, and sometimes a change in work activities for parents. You can feel parents collectively holding their breath while waiting to see if the new relationship ‘takes’ between their child and their new caretaker or teacher. What can we do as parents to help our children get ready for the change? There are three things that are helpful for bridging these new beginnings and are based on developmental and attachment science.
1. Become a Match-Maker
The first role we can play is match-maker. We all know people who are natural at this, connecting people together seamlessly with little effort. You don’t have to have a good track record at match-making to help your child with this; in fact, my sister has still not forgiven me for many of the dates I set her up on. Match-making means you endear two parties to each other. Using the person’s name is helpful and if you have had any dealings with them emphasize your positive feelings about them. Let your child know that this new person will take care of them and that you trust them to do so. In essence you are passing the attachment baton on from your care to that of the new person. When your child looks at you and sees you are favourable towards their teacher, school or new surroundings, then this will go far in setting up everyone for a successful take. You can also orient them and familiarize them with their new surroundings, driving by the school or playing in the playground. One of my friends got a bunch of the Mom’s and kids together for a dry run in walking to kindergarten and having a picnic at the school. All of these things help your child see the new surroundings and the people in it as a welcome and safe place to be.
2. Bridge the gap between the old and the new
New people in love know all about the second means of helping people hold onto each other when apart. Do you remember wanting any belonging of the person you first fell in love with? I look back now and think good grief … what did I ever want with that argyle sweater of his? Of course I was under the spell of that intense attachment that only exists in relation to new loves and new babies but there is method in all of this madness that is worth taking note of. For younger children especially, the separation with parents can be perceived as great and so we can help them by providing bridges to us that they can hold onto. Bridges can be anything, from possessions, to sentiments, to kisses in the palm of their hands. One of my friends gave her son a picture of her to put in his back pocket. He would tell her that when he missed her he would take it out and kiss her face. As her picture became well worn, he became well settled in his new school surroundings. The idea of a locket with your picture in it or the Kissing Hand Book by Audrey Penn, are all bridges to help your children keep you close even when apart. When they feel your presence close to them they may feel more at home in their new surroundings and less anxious. Another bridging strategy is to focus on your return and not on your leaving when saying goodbye. This might mean telling them what you will do later such as go shopping or make dinner. Focusing on when you will be together makes the distance between you smaller.
3. Deepen your attachment
The final means of helping your child adjust to their new surroundings is to deepen your relationship with them so that they have a wealth of attachment energy to spring forth into their new surroundings. The deeper the attachment, the more they are able to withstand separation because they have many means of keeping you close, from sameness all the way through to being known by you. Each year up until the age of 6 (approximately), children can develop ways of keeping those they love most close to them. For a two year old this is harder developmentally and thus we can see more separation anxiety in younger children as a result. Deepening your relationship is always better for everyone involved, and research shows the expression of delight, enjoyment and warmth is the most effective means of doing this. Finding projects that you can do with your child outside of school can go a long way but anything that finds you connecting with them will do the job.
Change and new beginnings are a part of life: for the Mom who leaves her child on the doorsteps of kindergarten to the Mom who waves goodbye to her university-bound teenager. This September when I know my children are safely settled in their new surroundings, I will add my sighs of relief to the collective parent pool. I will then turn inwards to face the reality that my children are growing up, as they should, and that my Mother’s heart both grieves and celebrates each of their new beginnings.
– Deborah MacNamara Ph.D. is a Vancouver Parent Educator and Consultant