Published on March 20, 2024

Most parents have been there; you get to the school gates, ready to hand over to your child’s teacher for the school day and your child resists. They may physically cling, get upset or angry. It can be really difficult to know what to do and how best to deal with the situation. It can feel like an impossible position; wanting to do the best by your child, while also needing to go to work or run errands. The feeling of other parents and staff members watching and wanting to know what’s wrong. However, this is actually a natural reaction to being separated from you; their primary caregiver. So why is it that my child doesn’t want to leave me at the school gates?

You Are Their Safe Space

The reason your child doesn’t want to leave you is likely to be because you are their safe space. John Bowlby, pioneer of attachment theory, talks about how every child needs a ‘safe haven’ in order to function effectively in the world. This is their secure and consistent base where they can be themselves. Although schools do their best to meet every child’s needs, there are around 29 other children in each class and schools can only function as a whole community. As a result, school can feel like a huge step away from their safe space for children, especially when that safe space is rocked by a life event such as family conflict or divorce.

Photo by Mike Fox on Unsplash

They Are Out Of Their Window of Tolerance

We all have a window of tolerance. Dan Siegel describes this as the mental space each of us have where we feel regulated and able to function well. This can expand or shrink depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in, including our responses to life events. When we are outside of our window of tolerance, we become dysregulated and our fight/flight or freeze response kicks in to keep us safe. This response sends a signal to our brains to be fearful of the situation, even if we have faced it before. In its clearest form this could look like a fight at the school gates, trying to run away or being unable to move. Any unusual changes in behaviour can indicate that someone is outside of their window of tolerance and their fight/flight/freeze response has kicked in.

How Can You Support Your Child Into School?

Leaving is an inevitable part of the day; whether at the school gates or at night when it’s time to go to sleep. It can be difficult for children to disengage from their primary caregiver. You are their source of love, care and attention that all children require and thrive on.

So How Can We Help This Transition?

You can support this by identifying what it is that your child needs in order to feel secure enough to come into school, regulate their fight/flight response and help them back into their window of tolerance.

Offer Connection

Your child is likely asking for connection and safety without having the words to express that “I am feeling dysregulated right now and I need safety and security”. This can be implemented at a more suitable time. Introducing this language to your child in an age-appropriate manner can help them feel seen and understood. For instance, “I’ve noticed you seem overwhelmed or unsure when I drop you off at school. This is different from how it used to be and I wonder if this might be linked to the changes we have been going through as a family. It’s ok to feel this way. I’ve been feeling a little like this too. I want to be able to help you. I wonder what I could do to help you feel safe when you go to school”.

Use A Transitional Object

Offering your child a transitional object as a physical representation of you. David Winnicott introduced the term to describe items such as comfort blankets and teddies. In school, this could be a stone or shell in their coat pocket that you found on a beach holiday together or a walk nearby. A small bead bracelet that you each wear with yours and your child’s initials. Or some people like to draw a tiny heart on each of their wrists to signify each other’s love. Something tangible to remind them of you and that you will be back to collect them at the end of the day.

Gain School Involvement

Speak to the school. Your child won’t be the first or the last to go through a difficult phase of being dropped off at school. Work collaboratively with the school to support your child in accessing the school day. Can adjustments be made to drop-off time so that your child feels less overwhelmed without the whole school around at the same time? Or could a named member of staff offer a meet and greet? Would an activity such as reading or colouring, at the start of the day, help to bridge the gap between you leaving and school work starting?

Conclusion

Resistance at the school gates is a very common, natural and healthy response to separation which many children go through. If your child frequently experiences this, try to pinpoint any changes that have happened in your child’s life: moving house, parental separation, bereavement or loss of friendships, to best support them. Many things can trigger us to want to feel safe and connected to the ones we love the most. It is also important to look after yourself, find support, and know that you are not alone; this phase will pass.

You may also find this article useful ‘The Challenges For Young Children Going Back To School’

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The Early Days Of Separation

Humans are designed to cope with many onslaughts, but change continues to prove extremely challenging. How you manage the early days of separation or divorce has the potential to set the tone for the rest of the process.

When couples separate, they are often thrown into a period of uncertainty. Identities are changing from couple to single, from mum and dad together as a family unit to mum with children and dad with children. Depending on the circumstances and who decides to leave the family home, there are many questions that arise during the early days of separation. “Will we have to sell our home?” “I haven’t worked since we had children – how will we manage financially?” “What will our friends and family think?” “How much will divorce cost?”
“Will I cope on my own?” There seems to be so much to sort out both practically and emotionally and it comes at a time when at least one of you will be ‘all over the place’ emotionally due to the loss you are experiencing. This can make decision-making seem impossible. Who wants to agree the practicalities of legal issues and more importantly organise the children when they are devastated, angry and confused by loss? It can turn otherwise rational, clear-thinking mums and dads into what appears to be belligerent, stubborn, unreasonable people.

Take Your Time!

In those early days of separation or divorce, take your time if you can. Seek support from friends, family and professionals. Try not to make any big decisions too quickly.
Bear in mind that communication problems with your ex and all the pressures on family life you are now experiencing, like for many separating couples, will get better with time. It’s important to recognise that you and your ex will more than likely be in very different emotional places at the moment; different stress levels and anxieties will be making communication difficult. Taking the time to sometimes do nothing, to not react, give things a day or two, can prove very useful techniques.
What you have to remember is that if you have children, your ex is always going to be part of your life. That can be hard to take on board when you are feeling hurt and angry. If you can find a way to communicate with each other that focuses on the children, you will all benefit in the years to come.

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