Separation Anxiety and Strangers

This incident happened a few weeks ago and I’ve taken some time to process through what happened and how I feel about it and now I feel prepared to share about it. 

We are going through the process of applying to the Pre-K program at a local private school. It’s a great private school and although I still don’t think Cam will go there for the primary grades I really want her in the Pre-K program. The teacher is incredible and she has built an AMAZING Reggio-inspired program that I think Cam will love and will benefit from immensely. Part of the application process is a screening. While it seems silly for such small children to be screened, this is mostly to get a handle on the kids coming in, be sure they are ready, and ensure there aren’t any major learning issues (the school does not provide services for children with severe learning issues).

Prior to us going in for the screening I prepped Cam as best I could telling her a woman would be talking to her. I was not, and still am not, sure exactly what goes on in the screening. I assume they keep this hush-hush so that parents can’t prep their kids. I also knew that I would not be allowed in the room and told Cam that. She was so-so on me leaving, but since her visit went so well (with nary a tear shed) I thought it might be okay. 

It was not. There were a lot of things that led up to the sobbing shut down Cam had. The screener was not welcoming to either us or to Cam. There was no “hello”, no “how are you”, no greeting what so ever. The only interaction before curtly asking Camille to follow her alone into a room was “Is this Camille?” directed, not at Cam herself (who if she is entering Pre-K should be able to at least acknowledge her own name), but at me. She didn’t even glance at my husband. 

At that point Cam quickly and apprehensively climbed into my lap. As I, with little or no help from the screener, tried to coax Cam into the room more and more tears came. By the time I had dragged Cam the 15 feet to the doorway she was hysterical and begging to go home. She was scared. The screener’s response was to ask me if she was an only child and if she was in school. Yes and no. Her advice: there are parenting books on separation anxiety. And her parting wisdom: this doesn’t happen often. She also encouraged us to hire a babysitter to help her feel more comfortable being left with other people.

I’m entering rant mode here, be forewarned. My kid is three and half years old. She is just like me in that in order to quell her anxiety she needs a good sense of what is going to happen, what is expected from her, and a level of comfort in an environment before she will open up. Once she has those things, boy does she open up. You have to ask her to stop talking she opens up so much. Sometimes you have to remind her we aren’t at home and she can’t help herself to things without permission. I couldn’t provide her with any of that information prior to going to the screening. And the screener wasn’t willing to provide her with the time, energy, or information once we were there. Holy shit she was terrible. I’m amazed this woman has been working with kids for two decades. You wouldn’t know it.

I am well aware there are kids who are comfortable leaving their parents side and comfortable in new situations. However, being an only child and being home with me is not an indicator of either of those things, just like being in daycare and being one of several siblings is not an indicator of those things. Neither are they a cause of this apprehension. Over my years working with kids I have seen confident kids and shy kids come from homes with lots of siblings and homes with no siblings. I have seen kids who have spent their lives in daycare and at home and are both outgoing and shy. I would have been nervous in that situation and if that’s the case, how could I possibly expect my three and half year old, whose understanding of the world is so limited and whose experience is so brief and small, to be fine with it? With Cam this is a case of nature and nurture. That was me as a child and I was in daycare from a year old, certainly before I have any memory of being home.

As for the babysitter suggestion. I can’t even begin to express how inappropriate that was. For starters I don’t think leaving a very young child with some one you don’t know is the best option. Sure people do get babysitters. As a parent you need to get out and go away. But they have met and interviewed these people. Especially when their children are small. Fortunately for us we have family. Lots of family. Very close. They are the better, safer, and more appropriate option for our young child. Another point to consider here is the cost of hiring a babysitter. It so happens that if we had to pay to go out for an evening or a trip to Home Depot that wouldn’t go out. Our family is happy to watch Cam for free. I would also note that if we were to leave Cam with a babysitter it would be someone she had met on multiple occasions with us present. Some one we had vetted and were comfortable with, etc, etc. It would not be anything like the situation that happened in the screener’s office. In fact that kind of response (or lack thereof) would be grounds for immediate firing from a babysitting gig. And since this is to “help” Cam feel more comfortable with situations like we were in (where her parents leave her alone with someone she doesn’t know to do something she has no idea about) then we would need to hire a complete stranger and then leave her with them. So, that’s not a working model. 

Again, my kid is three and a half. If she was willing to walk off with a stranger with not even a glance over her shoulder at me, I would be horrified and terrified. There may be kids who are capable of that at three and a half, but it would be concerning. It would certainly raise red flags about safety and maybe attachment. This is NOT a case of separation anxiety. This isn’t me leaving her at school and she’s afraid I won’t come back, that I’m abandoning her. It’s a case of she doesn’t know who the f *ck you are and what you’re going to do to her behind that closed door and wants a reassuring presence there. From an evolutionary perspective, this is smart. She’s totally dependent on me, particularly for protection, and being worried would help keep her out of dangerous situations and help her survive. Not to mention she will let me leave her places and with other people. She will also let me walk out of line of sight in the store without worrying. An occasional, “Mama?” answered with a “Here” is all the reassurance she needs in that situation. 

My other concern is the implication that I’m supposed to make Cam do this. Force her to be alone in a room with some she doesn’t know, and now, doesn’t trust. That runs counter to everything I want to teach her about personal safety. I don’t believe in stranger danger. That idea is way too binary and doesn’t allow for the nuance there can be in apprehension and nervousness about new people and situations. I want Cam to trust her gut about how she feels, so that she can make decisions that she feels are right for her. It seems extreme, but a childhood of people telling her “you need to do this because I say so even though you aren’t comfortable” can eventually translate into her boyfriend telling her to get in the backseat when she’s a teenager not ready to have sex but doing it anyway. I have been in some hairy situations when it comes to personal safety and, while I can’t say what would have happened had I not trusted that creepy feeling I got, I am glad I went with it and removed myself from them. I want to give that same confidence to Cam and learning to trust that feeling starts now. Yes, at three and half. Not when she’s 18. So, I am not comfortable telling her to suck it up and do it even though I know she isn’t in danger. She doesn’t yet know that and it’s my job to help her feel comfortable enough to do this thing and discover for herself that it was unpleasant, but fine. 

The long and the short of it is, I am so angry with this woman. And I’m pissed that Cam has to go through this again. Considering this is the only grade I’m interested in for her at this school it hardly seems worth it. I talked to the woman in the admissions department about what happened and she is both a long time friend (seriously, going back 20 years) and a warm, caring, lovely person. I wanted her to know what had happened and why I was angry. I also wanted to see if she had suggestions for how to get past this. We’re going to try having Cam visit the admissions department and do some role playing to get her comfortable with the space where the screening will happen. I’ll keep you posted on how this goes. I actually think this might work really well as it will get Cam comfortable in the space.

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation