Nicolle Wiseman remembers the first morning she and her daughter waited for the big yellow bus. Five-year-old Sophia was starting kindergarten and riding the bus for the first time with minimal adult supervision. With a mix of excitement and anxiety (accompanied by a few tears), Wiseman watched the bus pull away. And then the worry set in. How would she cope with her daughter in a new environment with unfamiliar people?
“I had nurtured her around the clock since she was born,” Wiseman says. “How could anyone else know how to take care of her like I did?"
The concern is all too familiar, especially at the beginning of the school year, says Diana Mancuso. She’s a teacher, mother, and blogger at Toronto Teacher Mom.
"One of the main reasons a parent may feel this way is fear of the unknown," says Mancuso. “What if my child misses me and starts to cry? What happens if she gets hurt? Will she make any new friends or will she play on her own? A parent may feel even more nervous if the child has spent most of the summer at home. They might be used to playing alone or just with family members."
We hear about children experiencing feelings of stress and anxiety when they’re separated from a parent. But they aren’t the only ones who can feel unsettled. Parents can experience separation anxiety, too. Feelings of sadness, fear and guilt can intensify when little Emma attends her first day of school or daycare. Or when Jacob goes off on his first overnight stay with grandparents. Or even when Vijay leaves home to go to university.
What causes parental separation anxiety?
Becoming a new parent is a significant life event. It changes the way you understand yourself, says Irene Barrett says. She’s a psychologist with Blomidon Place, an interagency counselling service for children, youth and families in Newfoundland.
They often ask questions like, "'Will I be a good parent?” and “What kind of parent will I be?” says Barrett. "Parents sometimes compare themselves to how their parents raised them, which can stir up some emotional responses."
Other factors can come into play. For example, sleep deprivation, birth-related health issues, financial stress and changes in daily living habits. It’s a lot to process in such a short period of time. "If you don’t know your childcare provider personally, it can be challenging. They’ll need to develop trust in them while supporting their child.
The good news is that experts say separation anxiety is usually short-lived. This is true if parents are willing to adapt to new situations. And in an environment they consider happy and safe.
If you find yourself struggling with separation anxiety, consider these coping strategies:
- Accept it as normal. Accept a certain degree of discomfort when you part ways with your child. It's a healthy sign of attachment. Don't feel embarrassed. It’s a natural part of the parenting instincts that help you decide for your family.
- Set up gradual transitions. Your child may cling, cry or have a temper tantrum. Especially because they’ll be facing a new setting apart from Mommy and Daddy. Can’t bear the thought of leaving your child behind? Start by gradually increasing the time you spend away. Have your child stay with a caregiver. You might just sit in another room, go for a walk or zip out to the grocery store. Be consistent with your arrangements. Try to line up the same caregiver. This will help you both become familiar and happy with your childcare.
- Preparation and routine are critical.It can be a challenge, but with a little planning, you can transition without much stress. At back-to-school time, begin by gradually. Adjust your schedule in the weeks leading up to the big day, suggests Mancuso. “If you start to slowly adjust the bedtime routines earlier on, there will be less fuss once school starts." She also points out that parents can minimize their jitters by holding their child's hand while at school. Stay with their child until the bell rings. Or speak with the teacher before school to address any fears or concerns.
- Be positive. Although it’s difficult, it’s important for you to be positive with your child about embarking on a new experience. "Coping with your own anxiety before introducing your child into the situation would be ideal," says Barrett. Children can notice their parents’ worry or anxiety. So try not to share these feelings with them.
- Talk about it. This doesn’t mean you can’t show your feelings. You might like to share them with a partner, friend or family member. They can give you some support during this emotional time. "Finding other parents who have gone through the experience and can provide helpful advice can be beneficial," says Barrett.
- Take time for yourself. We hear this phrase a lot. But when we meet our own needs for rest, good health and mental stimulation, we take better care of our kids. As parents, we become so involved with juggling our day-to-day responsibilities. We can fall short of giving ourselves uninterrupted "me" time. It’s about recharging our own batteries. Reclaim your life. Take that well-deserved nap. Go on a “date” with your partner. Grab lunch with friends. You deserve it! Basic self-care is especially vital if you have difficulties with anxiety. Barrett recommends deep breathing, exercise, positive self-talk and listening to music.
- Get professional help. If your separation anxiety becomes a greater issue, talk with your physician or a mental health professional. They can recommend additional coping strategies or treatments.
Now that your little one is in school, it’s not too early to start saving for college or university. A registered education savings plan (RESP)can help you prepare for tomorrow. For an idea of how much higher education might cost for your child, try our RESP calculator.