It’s been a long time since I have thought about my kids’ school separation or separation anxiety. Last September, my son proudly left our apartment on foot at 7:20am to commute on his own to school via the crosstown bus. Meanwhile, after walking most of the way to school with my daughter, she dropped my hand two blocks away from the school building (I knew that was coming) and asked me not to wait in the lobby with her anymore while she waited for the school bell to ring. Slightly heartbroken, I basked in the new found time in the morning to get to work tasks before 9am. But, after spending the last five months with our family of four together every single day, I am definitely thinking about what separation will look like this fall, for me and for my children.
Like many parents right now, I feel both trepidation and excitement at the prospect of my children going back to school. Even though both my kids are returning to schools they both know very well, they are returning to a new set of Covid-related routines that we as a family are trying to get our heads around. So, much like the weeks before sending my kids to preschool for the first time, I am thinking about how to prepare them for their new routines and for separating from me, my husband and our dogs. (My son’s favorite part of online school was our dog joining him for class each morning). Here are some of the things that I am thinking about to help prepare them (and me) for the start of school in our current reality:
- Practice: Since March, my kids have been used to being in touch with me ALL the time. During lockdown, even when I hung my “I’m in a Zoom call” sign on the bedroom door, they still walked in the room to find out where the frozen pizza was (seriously???). So for their well being and my sanity it will be useful to practice a little separation starting now. Separation for older kids (something I haven’t had to deal with much in recent years) sounds a little like this: “Hey kids, I’m going for a walk in the park and not taking my phone. See you in an hour. If you need something, our next door neighbor is home.” Obviously, that can’t work if you have a 6 year old alone at home, but maybe there is someone in your quarantine bubble that you could practice leaving your kids with and coming back to (returning at the time you say you will be back). I am not allowing texting during these practice runs because they won’t be able to text me in school. My kids need to know that I know that they can be ok (and I can be ok) without constant contact.
- Transitional object: Winnicot, the pediatrician and psychoanalyst, talked about the use of an object (blanket, stuffed animal, etc) to help soothe a child when they separate from their parental figures. I can vividly remember reading “The Kissing Hand” with my kids for many years right before school started. Now, as my 11 year old goes back to school after having had very little separation from me for five months, I am thinking about what she might need to get through the beginning of the year away from me. We have begun talking about having a journal that she could write in if she gets nervous about being away from home and share with me if she feels like it at the end of the day. Or, I thought about sending her to school with a short note that she can read if it helps her when she’s missing me. Whatever the routine or object we come up with, it has to be for her, not me. It will just remind her that we are still connected even though we are apart.
- Logistics: Children, no matter what age (preschool to teen) like to know the logistics of a situation, and if you have read any of the back-to-school protocols, there are a lot of logistics to work out just to get in the building. In my house, we have started creating a back-to-school logistics plan, providing our kids with a sense of predictability and giving them some say (i.e. scooter or skateboard) to offer them a sense of control. I have been discussing the options with my 13 year old and we have already talked through the fact that walking to school will take 30 minutes and scootering will take 15. Next we will work out the different routes that are safest and fastest. The next step will involve practicing the different options, giving both of us the confidence that the plan will work. Addressing those logistical options makes more room for his other worries about logistics that are not ours to plan (all the stuff that happens he is inside the school building).
- Holding the Worries: If my children are having worries, I create a worry box (an empty box of tissues personalized and decorated) for them to put their worries in. It is critical that they name their worries and be able to put them aside. While I have my own concerns about my children being in school in the Covid era, I will talk through those concerns with other adults, not with my children. I will reinforce with my kids that research has shown what keeps them safe — a face mask, washing hands and social distance. If I’m making the choice to send them back to school, my kids need to know that I feel confident that the school and teachers will take care of them. They need to feel my assurance so they can walk into school not holding my worries in addition to their own back-to-school stress.
As a gentle reminder to all of us, there is no perfect separation now or ever. One of our jobs as parents is to move through numerous separations from our children for their whole lives. Some we will nail and others we will fumble. And, as we all know, this Fall will not be like any other we know… so we must be patient and generous with ourselves as we navigate this time with our kids.
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