At this stage in the school year there are parents and children for whom separation still may be an issue. This is especially true for 2-year-olds who only in recent years have been expected to go to school at this young age. While older children and their parents may experience some pangs when saying goodbye at the school room door, feelings may be more intense for those — both children and parents — whose emotional memories of babyhood are closer at hand.

Those intense feelings were expressed by a mother and her 2-year-old son when she attempted to leave him in his preschool separation group. His crying protests were so overwhelming that his mother took him out of the room. When they returned, the children in the group were seated around a table in preparation for an art project. The upset child was no longer crying but clung to his mother who sat down on a chair along the wall. The art teacher was handing out playdough and a place was made for the upset child but when he refused to join the others the teacher gave him some of the same material.

The mother tried to interest the child in the playdough and pushed him to join the others to no avail. He turned his back on the teacher when approached. Finally, the mom seeming desperate, physically moved the child to the table, kneeling next to him. The teacher encouraged her to sit down next to him, which she did while demonstrating to him how to start cutting up the playdough.

Gradually, the little boy began to give his attention to the playdough and was no longer clinging to his mother. At that point, another adult sat down next to the mother to talk to her. With that, the boy turned to the mother, weeping while climbing on to her clinging. Apparently, the child viewed the intervention as an attempt to have his mother leave and his earlier upset resumed. She calmed him by reassuring him that she was not going to leave and they remained with the child clinging to her side.

During this entire scene, the mother while more controlled than her child, was visibly upset, searching for some direction. Later, in a conversation with the program supervisor, she expressed great concern about his upsetting the group. Told that it was fine for her to remain in the group with him indefinitely, it was not clear to what degree this was reassuring to her.

It is not unusual for a mother to feel conflicted in response to a strong protest about separation from her child. A mother herself, may have some concerns about leaving her child. The early attachment between mother and child is strong, and feeling ambivalence about the end of dependence and emerging independence is understandable. “Is my child ready to be without me?” may be the unspoken question. A child’s protest speaks to that question.

At the same time, parents are overly sensitive to the thought that their child is not adjusting — as they see it — as other children seem to be. Unfortunately, that may lead to concerns that there is some problem with the child, or that they themselves may be doing something wrong.

The process by which children accept being without a known caregiver varies from child to child. Children need time to build relationships with new adults and peers that help them feel comfortable in a new situation. In the example described, both mother and child need support to help the child engage with interesting activities while connecting to the teachers.
— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.