Coping with Your Separation Anxiety
By: Armin Brott
By the time your child is six, she's probably already had some experiences with preschool or day care, and she's spent some pretty good chunks of time away from the house. But there's something about starting the first grade—that's "real" school, after all—that's different.
A lot of dads I've spoken with have said that while the start of their children's school years was a happy occasion, it was also a little devastating. On the one hand, we're proud that the kids are getting bigger and smarter and better looking and stronger, but at the same time we have this general feeling that they're slipping away. The issue isn't the number of hours away from home. It's that we're slowly becoming aware that our kids don't need us as much as they used to, and we're losing our ability to influence them. Until recently you were your child's primary source of information about the world. Sure, teachers, peers, and the media had something to say, but your child came to you for the final word, and you had a lot of control over what she learned or didn't learn.
That's all changing now, big-time. Over the next few years what your child's friends and teachers say will carry more and more weight in her mind. Her own reading will also influence her. During the next few years your child will gradually shift from reading as entertainment (which kids do through the second or third grade) to reading to learn, which starts happening in about the fourth grade. Between the friends, the teachers, and the books, your child will be exposed to all sorts of new ideas and thoughts and philosophies that you have very little control over.
Okay, it's going to take a little doing to get used to relinquishing control over your child's education, but you can handle it. What's going to be a lot tougher is to come to terms with her budding independence. It wasn't all that long ago that she wanted to hold your hand all the time and have you watch every somersault and hang up all those "You're the best daddy in the world" notes that she made for you all by herself.
But now, as she develops deeper relationships outside the home, her relationship with you and your partner will change. There'll be no more—or at least a lot less—snuggling in bed as a family to read stories or watch videos together; she may get embarrassed about being hugged or kissed by you, especially in public; she may not want to talk to you about her day; she always has someplace else she'd rather be and may hardly want to spend any time with you at all. Getting recognition and acceptance from you won't be nearly as important as it used to be. Instead, life will be more about fitting in with the new crowd and being accepted by them. It's a normal part of life. She needs to prove to herself and others that she can make it in that big world out there. And in her mind, the only way to show her independence and fit in with her friends is to reject you. Doesn't make a lot of sense from the adult perspective, but those are the cold, hard facts.
Novelist Joseph Heller does a great job of capturing this dynamic. "My boy has stopped talking to me, and I don't think I can stand it. He doesn't seem to like me. He no longer confides in me. 'Are you angry with me?' I inquire of my boy. 'No I'm not angry.' 'You don't talk to me much anymore.' 'I talk.' He shrugs."
But as normal as it is for her to push you away, it's just as normal for you to feel confused. You'll be proud that your child is growing up, and you'll want to encourage her independence. At the same time, you'll want to keep her close to home, where you can protect her from the world. But watch out: you may have other, more selfish reasons for not wanting to let your daughter go. You'll mourn the loss of your close relationship, and you'll feel hurt by her rejection. Having a child dependent on you made you feel important and needed, and you don't ever want to forget how her hugs and kisses melted you.
It can be very tempting to take your child's rejection personally and "get even" by pulling back emotionally or even physically. Big mistake. Try to remember that you're the grown-up here, and it's up to you to behave like one. Your child may act as though she doesn't need you, but deep inside she does—and she knows it. So don't stop being affectionate, just respect her wishes and don't kiss her in public, and don't stop trying to communicate. Your new and improved role now is to set boundaries while keeping the door open, to steel yourself against the sting of rejection but remind your child that you love her and that you'll always be there for her. You need to show that support unobtrusively, without feeling hurt, disappointed, or angry, according to the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (GAP). You also have to discipline yourself not to expect much back from you child. It won't be easy, but you'd better try: "Parents who need reassurance of the child's faithfulness are the unhappiest people in the world," writes the GAP.
Sometimes parents—mothers and fathers—respond to their child's rejection by seeking attention elsewhere, possibly by having an affair. Most parents, of course, don't do this. But among those who do, it's common that their children are "difficult": intense feelings of rejection can come up when a child is more strongly attached to one parent more than the other. The parent who feels left out may look for a more sympathetic shoulder to lean on. Or sleep with.
A nationally recognized parenting expert, Armin Brott is the author of Father for Life, The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be; The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year, A Dad's Guide to the Toddler Years, Throwaway Dads, and The Single Father: A Dad's Guide to Parenting without a Partner. He has written on parenting and fatherhood for the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek and dozens of other periodicals. He also hosts "Positive Parenting", a nationally distributed, weekly talk show, and lives with his family in Oakland, California. Visit Armin at www.mrdad.com.