Don't cry, mum, it's only school

The transition from home to classroom can be as traumatic for the parent as for the child. Caroline Millar looks at how to cope with those tough first days
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The Independent Online
When my son started school it wasn't him who cried. It was me. The sight of that small (and very keen) person vanishing into an unknown classroom was desperately painful. I couldn't understand it. I had prepared for Thomas's adjustment to school. But I hadn't anticipated the feelings of grief that swept over me during those first few weeks. I felt I'd lost him.

As thousands of little children troop through the doors of big school for the first time this week, many of their parents will be taken by surprise as they are overtaken by feelings of loss that they were not expecting. So busy have they been preparing their child for school to ensure that the transition will be as painless as possible that thoughts of their own feelings have been on the back-burner.

First-day adult tears at the school gate may be familiar to parents of older children but they are not to first-timers.

Janet Willcocks, a nurse and mother of three, says: "I wasn't expecting to feel as upset as I did when my eldest child, Jessica, started school. It was the amount of hours she'd be spending away from me. I thought: 'She'll be doing her A-levels soon, and I'm getting old'. It's a reminder of the distance you've travelled."

Anne recalls wondering what her child was doing every moment of the day: "I was really worried at playtimes and lunchtimes about this big playground and this very little person. And I got very upset when his teacher said that she'd had a confrontation with my son and she wasn't going to let him win."

Emilia Dowling, consultant child psychologist at the Tavistock Clinic in London, says: "Parents just don't expect that you will miss your children and want them to say that they miss you."

It is painful to watch your child under a teacher's authority, lining up, told to sit still until the end of the session. "There is an element of letting go of the control and nurture that women have had to develop to care for their young children," Mrs Dowling observes. "Previously, they have created and set the rules, whether the child is with their carer, or relatives."

Mrs Dowling says parents should be aware of the loss that accompanies a child's starting school, and should not translate it into antagonism towards the school. "Nothing could be more confusing for a child than to have the parents saying that what they're saying at school is wrong. Then the child is put in a loyalty bind just like when two parents have different opinions.

"Inevitably, the first question I would ask my son when he got home was, 'What did you do today?' When the answer was 'nothing', it was incredibly frustrating. Often the child doesn't want to tell you and that is them beginning to negotiate two worlds, and having their own experience which is not related to their mother."

In contrast, fathers may become more involved when their child starts school. Mrs Dowling says: "I think fathers feel much more able to take part in schooling than, say, going to the baby clinic. I have a hunch that men are more socialised into coping with steps towards independence."

Janet Willcocks's husband, Dominic, had always been involved in child care. A nurse, working shifts, he had occasionally taken his children to mother and toddler groups. "But I was the only bloke there, and it was quite hard, although they were fine about it."

Dominic found it much easier to get involved when Jessica moved on to school. "It was really exciting. I loved going in to school to help, and listening to them read. It was a bit like reliving your own childhood. I really felt, 'This is it, this is the big start for Jessica.'"

But younger siblings can feel left out. My own three-year-old, Claire, used to scream in frustration when the classroom door closed behind her brother. Margaret McAllister, an educational psychologist working in Scotland, says: "A second child is often quite competitive with the first because the first one is bigger and is more skilled, and the second one often wants to be really right in there doing what the other is doing."

She advises that parents try to encourage co-operation between siblings. "When the second child starts school, the first one is there for them in a positive way. It is always more difficult for the first child who goes."

For mothers who have been at home, a child starting school can mean a chance to re-evaluate their own lives. Edward Melhuish, professor of human development at the University of Wales, says: "Mothers always feel a bit anxious about their child starting school at first, but that's often mixed with a great relief at having more time."

Sue Morris, an ex-theatre worker, had been at home since the birth of her second child. She recalls her son's first year at school with pleasure. "It took him a few months and then he really did settle down well. Then about February, the need for me to be there constantly was fading and that's when I decided to go for a careers counselling session."

Sue decided to train to be a teacher. "Jakey's head teacher was helpful to me, she gave me various books and some good ideas." Other parents gave support. "There's a network, particularly of women parents. If you're thinking of doing something, there's usually someone you can talk to."

The contact with other parents helped in other ways. "If I was worried about Jakey settling in, my worry began to pale as I spoke to people with similar experiences."

For mothers who are already working in demanding jobs, it is harder to get such support. Cath Gall is a business analyst, and her husband, Bill, is a psychologist. They have three children. "You do feel that because you're not there at the gate at quarter to four, you miss out on a lot of what is going on in school life, the regular contact with the teacher and the other mums," she says.

Cath found her son's first year at school particularly difficult. "Tom had a very unsettled period. The school was very helpful, but it was difficult for him and traumatic for us."

If a child has prolonged difficulty in settling, Professor Melhuish says, it can have repercussions on the whole family. "This kind of emotional upset tends to affect the parents, making them more irritable with younger siblings."

It is important for parents to avoid blaming themselves or the school for a child's problems. "Most commonly it is a combination of factors where greater understanding and co-operation can be beneficial," he says. "If people become antagonistic and start blaming each other, things start to escalate and become much worse."

But parents can feel on the defensive when working with their child's school. Emilia Dowling says: "You are called to school when there is a problem. Except for parents' evenings, it's very rarely you are called up to say they are delighted with your child. You go up to school a fully grown person and sometimes you feel quite intimidated by a teacher being critical or suggesting that you perhaps aren't doing what you should do. It is quite easy to evoke the parent's own feelings about authority and their experiences of schooling."

Margaret McAllister says parents should try not to let memories of their own schooldays influence them. "What parents need to remember is: 'That was then, this is now'. Don't fall into the trap of thinking your child is going to react to a similar circumstance in exactly the way you did. This is a different child."

And parents should not feel threatened by the influence of their child's teachers and schoolmates. "The child needs to learn to function in a wider context than in the family," Mrs Dowling says. "The playground is a laboratory for relationships where children are helped to learn that people handle things differently."

Barbara North, head teacher of Woolton Infants School in Liverpool, recognises that it can be hard for parents to hand their children over. "We try to let the parents meet us as much as possible so they know us as people and they're not passing their child over to strangers. Starting school is not only work, it's emotional things as well, and parents need to trust us."

Mrs North recommends that parents give children a positive attitude towards school by communicating and working with their class teacher. Children who have had some pre-school provision, who can dress and use the toilet themselves, and who have visited the school beforehand will usually settle well.

Emilia Dowling stresses: "Most teachers are dedicated and very generous people. Parents shouldn't see them as someone who is going to take over, but someone who is going to do a very important job, and will take into account your feelings and views if you care to put them over."

'The Family and the School - a joint systems approach to problems with children' (2nd Edition), by Emilia Dowling and Elsie Osborne, is published by Routledge at pounds 12.99.


Expect to feel upset - many parents find this feeling hits them unawares.

Try not to be antagonistic towards the school if there are any problems. This will only put your child in a difficult position.

Try to get involved with the school. If you have time, you could offer to help children with their reading or join the parent-teacher association.

Encourage your children to help each other, if you have more than one. An older brother or sister can give a younger one a lot of support in the first weeks at school.

Don't blame yourself for your child's problems. What he or she will need is understanding.

Don't be unduly influenced by memories of your own school days. Things have changed since then.