How to Say Goodbye to Your Child at School (transcript included)

In this episode: Janet answers letters from two families struggling with their children’s feelings around separation (a preschooler and a kindergartner). In both cases, the problem lies in how the parents are approaching the situation.

Transcript of “How to Say Goodbye to Your Child at School” (courtesy of Torin Thompson, September 8, 2015):

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, and in this episode of Janet Lansbury Unruffled, I’m going to be answering a question about separation to go to preschool.
Here’s the question:

“Hello Janet,
I’m so glad I found your work via Facebook a while ago. It helped me a lot with setting an empowering approach in educating my kids and I regret immensely I didn’t discover your articles and books earlier when my kids were babies. We’ve been living in England for a few years, and my three-and-a half-year-old daughter will start nursery next week. Sadly, she really seems not to be ready, although I have been trying to prepare her for this moment for the last two months. My husband tried to let her off at a Sunday school session once. Since then she’s never wanted to step in the Sunday school building. I couldn’t find any article on your blog that addresses specifically the problem of separation anxiety in preschoolers, which I’m desperate to try from a RIE point of view. I read about your approach to mom and infant separation, which is a different thing. It’s more like setting a start off I guess, practicing separation as gently and gradually as possible, but I missed the infant stage.” (I’m not exactly sure what she’s referring to there.)

She continues: “I’m so confused now. I’m also wrestling with accepting or not the proposal of the manager of the nursery my daughter will be attending hopefully of just coming into the door, step, and handing my daughter over, then leaving without looking back. I asked the staff if I might join her for the first few sessions in the hope of helping her settle down there easily and then gradually making steps back. Sadly, I couldn’t find there a respectful approach that treats each child as an individual with different needs. I’m wondering if we’re to treat our little ones as whole persons, showing respect and understanding, shouldn’t we refuse dragging them to school/nursery or trying to persuade them how much they’re going to like it there? Isn’t it disrespectful trying to inflict what we would have happen in our time, not theirs, ignoring their desires or lack of willingness or readiness? We wouldn’t try to do this to an adult, right? This deepens my confusion.”

Okay, I’m going to stop right here because I see that there is confusion about respect. What does it mean to respect a three-and-a-half-year-old, and how can we help her go to school or nursery? First of all, we have to do our research. We have to find a place we’re very comfortable with, or the most comfortable with. Find our best option. Observe the place. Sit there for as many hours as they’ll let you sit there and really get an idea of how they do things so that we are completely comfortable and confident that it’s the right choice for our child. Now, most three-and-a-half-year-olds could probably be ready for a few hours a week of nursery school, so this is a very reasonable choice for any child, but again, the parent has to believe in it. They have to believe in their choice. They have to have confidence in their choice and in their child to be able to handle this change, this new experience.

So that is approaching this with respect. We have to decide, knowing our child, if our child is ready, and once we decide, we make that decision with confidence. Now for a child, if the leaders they need, their parents, are not confident with the decision, they’re not comfortable, they have doubts, it’s very, very hard for the child to follow along. It’s very hard for the child to say goodbye to the parent if the parent is worried that they’re not ready, that their feelings are an indication that this is the wrong choice.

We have to be brave and mature in these situations so that our child can make the separation. I would not expect it to be just this seamless experience. That would be odd. Sometimes it happens. I would like to know more about how this mother has been preparing her daughter. Something that she says later is leading me to believe that she hasn’t been preparing her in the way that I would recommend, because she says, “If we are to treat our little ones as whole persons, showing respect and understanding, shouldn’t we refuse dragging them to school, nursery, or trying to persuade them how much they’re going to like it there?” I would never, ever persuade a child and try to sell them on an experience. That is another indication to the child that there is something that’s not completely comfortable with their parents about this decision. There’s not, there’s problems, there’s reasons their child shouldn’t like it. Why else would these people try to sell me on it? Why are they telling me how much I’m going to like it? Nobody knows how much she’s going to like it.

I would not try to whitewash an experience, because children are too aware and smart and they know the difference. They sense that their parent is trying to make it all nice for them and push them into it, instead of saying, the ideal is to say, “We’ve chosen this place for you. This is what’s going to happen when we take you.We’re going to say goodbye at the gate or at the door, and one of these nice ladies who you’ve hopefully met is going to usher you in. You may feel sad that I’m leaving. You may not be happy to say goodbye. We want to hear, we want to know how you’re feeling. I will see you when I get back, in the afternoon after lunch” or whenever it is. Give her those details. Maybe even some more details about, “At this place, when you first get there, there will be some art supplies set out.”

Whatever you know, you tell her. Just the facts. Not how much she’s going to like it or how great it is or how wonderful it is. Just the facts. Just what you know so that she can come into this experience with some confidence of knowing what to expect. She can predict. That’s what helps children to settle into new experiences. Having heard a story about a place that then comes true. “Wow, this happened! This lady did this. It went this way. I cried, even, just like my mother said in the story. And she said goodbye anyway and that was okay, and then she came back.”

Children can do this if we believe in them. But all these doubts that are going through your mind are getting in the way, because these are reflective of what you’re feeling, and these feelings are getting expressed to your child, these very sensitive, bright, aware children. They sense our feelings, so none of this is hidden from her. And then it makes it impossible. “My mother doesn’t feel safe about this. Look at the way she’s saying goodbye to me. She’s all uncomfortable. She’s got that look in her eyes. I can’t let go of her. This is unsafe, this isn’t right. She’s not comfortable, I can’t be comfortable.” Think about it. Think about it from her perspective.

So then this mother continues, “Should I wait until next year? I’m a teacher myself so I wouldn’t fear she might miss nursery information, as her activity playroom is armed with everything she needs to know for her age. She’s got friends so the playdates are on our agenda, and we also attend playgroups where moms are allowed to stay. Should I listen to my daughter? Should I trust her feelings and wait for the right time, or is this ‘waiting for the right time’ a trap?”

It’s not a trap, but it’s saying that your feelings about saying goodbye or about trying something new, your natural feelings of trepidation and nervousness and fear, all these things that are normal when we’re trying new things, that these are convincing me that I made the wrong choice for you. These are natural, normal things for her to feel during separation, so it’s only a trap in that you are wanting it to be a seamless experience where she says, “Bye Mom! Sure, I’ll try this new thing! Yeah, go ahead” even when you’re uncomfortable. That’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen. So I don’t know what you mean by a trap, but you have an expectation that is not realistic.

I have another note from somebody with a five-year-old. A five-and-a-half-year-old who just started school who’s having a hard time with separation. So it’s not about age, it’s not about readiness so much as it’s about the parent’s attitude and the parent’s readiness and the parent’s acceptance of their child’s experience and feelings and process. Accepting it as healthy. Even good for her, that she can express this to you.
So then this reader says, “I look forward to getting your wise advice on this, and please forgive my clumsy English writing, which is still a work in progress. I yet do hope the meanings of my ideas went through to you unadulterated by the process of translation. All the best in the great work you’re doing.” (That’s so nice. Thank you.)

Yes, so, personally, I would forge ahead with this choice, but I would reframe it for yourself and I would be the brave one in this situation that knows you’re making the right decision for your daughter. Whatever you need to do for yourself to be sure, if that’s waiting a year and finding a different school with a different process, great, but this is about you, not your daughter, in my opinion, and you’re the only one that can make this work. Hope this helps. Thanks again, and remember, you can do it!

So here’s the other question that is similar to this one that I just wanted to quickly go over because it’s basically the same issue.

“Hi Janet,
My five-and-a-half-year-old son has just started school in Ireland. He says he enjoys it and he likes his teacher. He hasn’t made any friends in his class yet, but it’s only been just over a week and he often takes his time getting to know people. The problem is letting me go in the morning. He just wants me to stay with him at school. The first few mornings I was clear that I would be back very soon. I acknowledged that it was hard to let me go and that he would miss me. I told him I would check how he was getting on.” I just, something struck me right here. Sorry I have to interrupt but, “I acknowledged that it was hard to let me go.” Good! “That he would miss me.” I wouldn’t necessarily throw that in there unless you’re, unless he is saying that. Then I would say, “You feel like you’re going to miss me.” I wouldn’t put that out there that he’s going to miss you.

Okay, so, “I told him I would check how he was getting on and he accepted that and let me go. However, the last two days, he really did not want me to leave. He clung onto my arm and begged me not to go. The teacher tried to distract him and eventually told me to go. I did and I’m devastated that I left him crying, calling for me. Both days the teacher said he’s okay after I’m gone.” Ah ha! “I went into the school on Thursday and the secretary went to check on his class and said he was fine, but I simply cannot leave him like this again. I feel like I’m betraying his trust in me.”

Again, this is about the parent feeling uncomfortable. And this is definitely not a betrayal of trust if she’s been clear with him about what she’s doing, what’s going to happen, that it’s okay with her if he’s upset, and you know that he’s going to see you when you get back, and you believe he can do this, he can handle this experience, and accepting that separations are messy sometimes. But we’re leaders of this so we’re the ones that have to set the tone of confidence and conviction in our choices and our child’s readiness, believe in our child, and say goodbye in a way that’s not heartbroken and “I just can’t do this again.” You know, it’s wearing on her. This is coming across to her son and that makes it impossible for him because now he’s got a really uncomfortable mother that he’s saying goodbye to and that means he can’t feel comfortable. So we are the ones that add so much onto this rather than just accepting, “Yeah you really don’t want me to go. You’re holding onto me. I’m going to take your hand off my arm. I know, it’s really hard right now. I’ll see you when I get back. I love you. Goodbye.” Bravely going off, being brave for our kids because they need this from us to be able to handle new situations.

She continues, “I feel like I’m betraying his trust in me. It goes against everything I believe. We talk about what is going to happen when he gets to school and we talk about what happened, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. I just don’t know how to handle this so that it is not traumatic for him. Please help. Thank you so much.”

It might seem traumatic for him sometimes, but I don’t believe it’s traumatic so much as dramatic. He’s having a dramatic—not that it’s fake, but just this dramatic goodbye to somebody he adores so much. Let him have this. Let it be okay. Be the confident one. Trust your child to experience this process.

I hope this helps, and remember, we can do this.

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