Whether one’s child is going off to preschool, kindergarten, or college for the first time, separation anxiety is often present for parents and their children. At these times, the focus is usually on the child’s anxiety about separation. What is frequently overlooked is that the anxiety may belong equally or more to the parents than to the child that is separating. While the anxiety is about separation, the impact is often on the child or adolescent’s ability to individuate. The consequences for the child’s sense of self and ability to learn could have lifelong effects.
Separation anxiety is about the anxiety of being alone, i.e., a separate other in the world. When the child separates from the mother*, he is no longer a symbiotic infant, a dependent attached toddler or child, or a needy adolescent. With separation comes the child’s feeling that “I will be all right.” There is attachment between mother and child, but it is an attachment between two separate selves. What creates the separate self is the lifelong process of individuation in which the child develops a sense of who he is uniquely in the world, what he wants, and how to get it. If the mother’s anxiety about the child separating and becoming less dependent is communicated to the child, it can interfere with the child’s ability to separate and have the space to individuate.
When the Child Goes off to School, How Can the Mother’s Anxiety Interfere with Individuation?
When the preschooler or kindergarten child goes off to school it may be the first time he is away from home without mother or a significant other. There is probably understandable separation anxiety that he is feeling: “Will I be okay without mommy?” That same anxiety is felt by the mother seeing her child go off to school for the first time: “Will my child be okay? Will he be unhappy, angry with me, sad, scared?”
It is often very painful and frightening for the mother to think of her child having to suffer difficult feelings. Many mothers also find it hard to tolerate the experience of their child’s anger toward them. When the mother is anxious that her child will feel these difficult feelings and believes the child will suffer, she worries that it will be intolerable for the child to have this experience. The mother may not be aware that she too is finding the experience of separation intolerable. If you ask the mother what could happen to her child from such suffering, she most often does not have an answer. Mother’s worry is irrational. It is true that the child may feel any and all of these things. However, it doesn’t mean that the child cannot cope with the feelings. In fact, it may be the mother’s anxiety—the worry that the child cannot cope and won’t be all right—that gets communicated to the child, makes him more anxious and affects his ability to cope. He comes to believe (as his mother does) that he will not be okay if he is separate. This makes him even more anxious. Under these circumstances, if the child is feeling a great deal of separation anxiety, he will not be able to participate in his surroundings in an optimal way. He will be preoccupied with his well-being and will be unable to use his new experiences in school to help develop his unique sense of self. His ability to learn and individuate will be affected.
If we think of the preschooler or the kindergarten child in the classroom, we can imagine some of the opportunities available to help him individuate. He will meet his teacher who will be a new adult. She will react to him in her unique way (without mother around) and reveal her ideas and feelings about who he is and what kinds of activities are fun and will encourage him to participate. If he is anxious, he will not be available to this new relationship. There will not be room to attach to another significant other who can influence him (perhaps with new or different ideas than mother). If new activities are suggested, e.g., block building, reading, dancing, gym, he may be too frightened to allow himself to engage and discover what he likes and finds satisfying. He will be focused on his internal state: “Am I going to be all right?” When he meets his mother after school, his anxiety will be perpetuated if mother continues to feel anxious (whether or not she expresses it verbally).
The children in the class provide another source of significant others who will respond and reflect back a sense of self to our new student. Do they feel comfortable around him, or do they sense his anxiety? If they feel his anxious state, they will be less likely to want to engage. He may feel more left out and alone, which will confirm his anxiety that he is alone and can depend on no one when his mother is absent.
The influence of peers is an important part of normal development and plays a large role in one’s self development. Learning that we can navigate different relationships with different types of peers helps us to recognize that we are multifaceted selves. We learn that we are not defined based only on the ways our parents perceive us. Rather, we are the silly one with Bobby, the smart aleck with Jenna, the serious friend of Seth, the helper with Melissa, and the angry one with Cliff. Obviously, our 5 year old doesn’t really conceptualize all these aspects of himself after spending some time in kindergarten. But he does start off, if he is not anxious, being in a position to begin to learn about his developing self with a variety of people. What he begins to experience is that he has a great deal of freedom to learn, to become a complicated, unique individual, and that there is more than one way to think about himself. Most important, there is no one right way to think about himself.
If the child has been unable to individuate because of his separation anxiety, he is likely to have trouble thinking about himself as a person with unlimited possibilities in the world. He may become the adolescent going anxiously off to college without a sense of self-confidence. He would not have been helped to know that he has what it takes to be comfortable and tolerate the new arena he is about to enter.
If mothers can become aware of the impact of their separation anxiety on their children, they will be in a better position to tolerate the feelings that their children have to suffer. If they can do this, they will help to facilitate the ability of their children to know and be comfortable with who they are. Their children will have been given the tools to live satisfying and successful lives.
*I will use “mother” to refer to the child’s primary nurturing caregiver.
The Transmission of Separation Anxiety from Parent to Child
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