Not long ago I wrote about my observation of a preschool group in which a very pregnant mom and her not yet 3-year-old son were having some difficulty with separation. The little boy was not clinging to his mom, who walked right over to a chair there for her, while the boy hung up his jacket and sat down near the other children.
The child, paying no attention to his mother, participated fully in the group activity. At a certain point, the mother got up and left the room without telling the child she was leaving. When he became aware of the fact that she was gone, everything about him changed. He began weeping inconsolably and was no longer able to relate to anything that was going on or to anything the teacher said.
When the mother returned, the child was unable to return to his former level of functioning. Sitting on the floor alongside her chair, he was barely able to control his sobs and participated only in a half-hearted way in the activity that was going on. The mother on her part, looked worried and disturbed by what had occurred.
Not long after, the mother asked to see me. She wanted to discuss what she saw as her childs inability to separate from her. She explained that she was expecting twins in a few months and felt under great pressure to resolve certain issues before then. She knows she will not be as available to her son as she is now and has been trying to prepare him for the fact that she will not be able to take him to school each time.
She worries about other things too, such as toilet training, and moving him into a real bed, again thinking about what the reality will be once the babies arrive. Seeing his reaction now when she leaves, makes her worry even more about how he will cope later. She had prepared him that she would be leaving the room and yet he didnt seem to understand.
I pointed out to the mother that right now, he is dealing with the present reality in which she is not available to him in the same way as before. Her pregnancy makes it impossible for her to pick him up or hold him in the same way. Her own feelings about what it will be like with three children instead of one are certainly preoccupying her emotionally.
When the babies come there will be a new reality to which they all will have to adjust. There is no way for her to prepare her son to deal with that now. Instead, her own pressure to have him separate in school as preparation for what may happen later, seems to be creating its own difficulty. I urged the mother that she not think she has to deal now with every issue that may arise later. I suggested she tell her son that she understands his worries about her leaving and that she is going to continue to stay as long as he needs her.
The other day at school, the teacher told me with pleasure that the mom was now able to leave the room upon arrival and the child has been fine. I bumped into the mother who seemed transformed, telling me that it seemed to just happen that her child was fine about her leaving.
The seeming magic was not in the words, it was in the moms changed attitude. Feeling reassured herself, she was able to reassure her son that he would be fine.
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. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.