My son started school after 18 months today. He is five years old. He’s a model child — calm, pleasant, chatty. Everyone thinks he is extraordinarily well adjusted because he didn’t cry. Let me tell you something: he did. As soon as he got into the car after I picked him up early… he cried. It was about a toy he didn’t get to play with. I knew it was about more. The school is new. He doesn’t know anyone. His teacher is wonderful but she is a stranger. He is a ‘good’ kid so he smiled and played the part. But I know him on the inside. He was waiting to be with me, in his safe space, so he could be his messy self. Which is why I did not leave the school. I sat in the lobby. I told him I was there and that I wasn’t leaving him in a new place. I drew a heart on his wrist and sprayed it with my perfume and drew the same heart on mine. “Whenever you need a cuddle or are missing me, just kiss or touch this heart. I will feel it.” He looked relieved.
Why would we think even for a second that it is okay to lie to our children that we will be entering the classroom with them, just to turn around and walk away when our child crosses the perimeter? WHY? “I want my Mama,” I heard several toddlers cry. They had been left in a place they did not know, with people who are lovely but who are strangers. How would you feel if you were left in a new city with only a bag and empty promises from the people you trust?
I want to, once and for all, do away with this big lie: Leaving your children suddenly in a new place, with new people, especially in anxious times… that does damage. It’s not damage you can see. But it registers in their brain.
You may not believe me. Believe the experts:
1) Dr Gabor Maté: After 20 years of family practice and palliative care experience, Dr. Maté worked for over a decade in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side with patients challenged by addiction and mental illness. The bestselling author of four books published in over twenty-five languages, Gabor is an internationally renowned speaker highly sought after for his expertise on addiction, trauma, childhood development, and the relationship of stress and illness. For his ground-breaking medical work and writing he has been awarded the Order of Canada, his country’s highest civilian distinction, and the Civic Merit Award from his hometown, Vancouver.
“Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.”
What is happening inside our child when we leave them to cry? Why do children cry?
They feel distress. They are in distress.
“Children don’t get traumatised because they get hurt. They get traumatised because they are alone with the hurt.”
Make the separation gradual. Do it in a way that makes them feel safe. There are ways to do this which I will share next time. Going to school is not the problem. Ignoring your child’s feelings about it, IS. Making your child feel unable to express how s/he/they felt about it, IS.
2) Dr Bruce D Perry: Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The Child Trauma Academy and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health, College of Science, Health and Engineering, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Over the last thirty years, Dr. Perry has been an active teacher, clinician and researcher in children’s mental health and the neurosciences holding a variety of academic positions. His work on the impact of abuse, neglect and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs and policy across the world.
“What I’ve learned from talking to so many victims of traumatic events, abuse, or neglect is that after absorbing these painful experiences, the child begins to ache. A deep longing to feel needed, validated, and valued begins to take hold. As these children grow, they lack the ability to set a standard for what they deserve. And if that lack is not addressed, what often follows is a complicated, frustrating pattern of self-sabotage, violence, promiscuity, or addiction.”
Bruce D. Perry, What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing (Co-authored with Oprah Winfrey)
Please don’t dismiss your child’s feelings about any transition.
Just be there. Just listen. Don’t leave them alone with what happens to them.