dear-dr-donna

Dear Dr. Donna,

My son is in 1st grade. I have recently separated from his father, so he and I are living without a Dad in the house. School started recently and while he says he loves school he completely falls apart when it’s time to go. He will throw himself down and refuse to walk into the building. And when I finally manage to get him into the building he clings to me and cries and the teachers have to assist extracting him from me. What is the best way to handle these outbursts? I don’t know whether to be the tough-love mom or be the soft comforting mom during these moments. And will it eventually stop??

Thanks for your advice,
Frazzled and Embarrassed Mom

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Dr. Donna Says . . .

Dear Frazzled,

Clearly this is a time of great transition for both you and your son. You have to figure out new ways of being a family and establish new routines in your daily living. That is not easy. It’s stressful, especially for children, who often feel they have no control over the circumstances. There will be some bumps along the way.

First and foremost, you need to establish there is no other underlying cause for your son’s distress—such as some problem with schoolwork, bullying or other situation he is trying to avoid. I suggest you talk with the teachers and ask them to be on the lookout for anything that might be upsetting him. Children can be reluctant to talk about an issue they don’t understand or are sometimes threatened by others to keep quiet or face consequences.

Talk to your son as well. Approach this conversation in a relaxed manner (easier said than done) so you don’t add to the anxiety. If we want our children to talk to us, especially about the really tough stuff, we have to convey the message (verbally and non-verbally) that they can tell us anything—not just what we want to hear. Kids can develop great radar for stress and often try to protect their parents, especially in separation situations where they are trying not to rock the boat in already choppy waters. Often kids will “throw out a crumb” to see our reaction, before exposing the “whole loaf of bread.” If we freak out at the version lite, then they know it isn’t safe to tell the whole story. So, even if you are screaming on the inside, portray calm and acceptance on the outside, as he talks about his problems. You won’t be able to help him if you don’t know what is wrong, and he won’t tell you if it just creates another problem (your hysteria) to solve.

If you have established that the source of his anxiety is nothing out of the ordinary, then his behavior is a reaction to the “normal” stress of this difficult time. It’s a scary experience for kids when their parents separate. In a way, everything they thought they knew about life has been turned upside down.

Children of all ages exhibit behavioral disturbances and uncharacteristic acting out in response to stress. Regression (reverting to an earlier developmental stage that was previously surpassed) is very common. This can include bed wetting, sucking their thumb, or being unusually clingy toward parents. It’s a defense mechanism they use to soothe themselves when they become emotionally overwhelmed.

It sounds like your son is experiencing separation anxiety as a form of regression. Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development in young children that reflects fear and apprehension about leaving the safe environment of proximity to the parent.

It sounds like your son is experiencing separation anxiety as a form of regression. Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development in young children that reflects fear and apprehension about leaving the safe environment of proximity to the parent. It typically fades as they begin to interact with the world in social settings outside the home. However, it can recur when a child feels vulnerable and insecure. Since the unthinkable has already happened once, your son may, consciously or unconsciously, fear abandonment or further loss of a parent.

Set aside a regular time for you and your son to communicate. Make this a calm and focused time—perhaps at dinner or before bedtime. By reasoning with him at a time when he is not in the midst of experiencing the anxiety, he will be able to absorb and internalize what you say.

If you can get your son to open up about his fears and anxieties, reassure him in clear and consistent ways. Make this a ritual each day and repeat the reassurances. Encourage him to repeat them back to you and to think of them when he becomes overwhelmed at school or when he is away from you and feels stressed. Develop a short and simple routine for when you say goodbye—a special phrase or unique wave. These consistent mini-rituals will help anchor him and provide the stability to be able to self-soothe when his emotions threaten to overwhelm him. With time, patience and consistent encouragement you both will adjust to your new normal.

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Someone Once Said . . .

The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.
—Denis Waitley

Recommended Reading

For more info on the topic of children and stress or children and divorce take a look at these titles (synopses from Amazon.com):

Children and Stress: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Therapists by Marti Loy

This book provides an overview of childhood stress and a wide array of creative activities that can be used to help children gain control over their stress. Included are activities that help children adopt healthy coping strategies, learn new stress management skills, and value the benefits of relaxation. Each fun and engaging activity is a complete lesson plan, providing all the detail an adult needs to conduct the activity and follow-up questions. This book is an essential resource for anyone who would like to help children deal with stress today, tomorrow, and throughout a lifetime.

Stress Free Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Build Self-Esteem, Manage Stress, and Reduce Anxiety in Children by Lori Lite

Stress Free Kids provides relaxation techniques you can use to free your child from stress. Lite shows you how to apply breathing, visualizations, affirmations, and muscle relaxation exercises effortlessly throughout the day. These parenting solutions to everyday stressors will reduce worries and anxiety while increasing self-esteem. You and your children will gain freedom as you live a more joy-filled life with less stress.

The Co-Parents’ Handbook: Raising Well-Adjusted, Resilient, and Resourceful Kids in a Two-Home Family from Little Ones to Young Adults by Karen Bonnell

Addressing parents’ questions about the emotional impact of separation, conflict, grief and recovery, the authors skillfully provide a road map for all members of the family to safely navigate through separation/divorce and beyond. Parents discover through practical guidance how to move from angry/hurt partners to constructive, successful co-parents.

Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce by JoAnne Pedro-Carroll

The breakup of a family can have an enduring impact on children. But as Dr. JoAnne Pedro-Carroll explains with clarity and compassion in this powerful book, parents can positively alter the immediate and long-term effects of divorce on their children. The key is proven, emotionally intelligent parenting strategies that promote children’s emotional health, resilience, and ability to lead satisfying lives.

The Truth About Children and Divorce: Dealing with the Emotions So You and Your Children Can Thrive by Robert E. Emery Ph.D.

Nationally recognized expert Robert Emery applies his twenty-five years of experience as a researcher, therapist, and mediator to offer parents a new road map to divorce. Dr. Emery shows how our powerful emotions and the way we handle them shape how we divorce—and whether our children suffer or thrive in the long run. His message is hopeful, yet realistic—divorce is invariably painful, but parents can help promote their children’s resilience.

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Donna Roberts is a native upstate New Yorker who lives and works in Europe. She holds a Ph.D., specializing in the field of Media Psychology. When she is researching or writing she can usually be found at her computer buried in rescue cats.