Starting Preschool: A Milestone of Separation and Individuation

Jacque Grillo
August 4, 2014

Perhaps your little one has just started preschool, or maybe this is an event you are planning for next year or the following, or perhaps your child is already settled in preschool. Whatever your circumstances, starting preschool for any child, whether for a few hours each week or for most of each day, is a major step in a life long process of separation and individuation. I thought this would be a good time to consider some of the most important early milestones in this process of separation and individuation.

For every child the first and most dramatic step comes at birth when the umbilical cord is cut. As in every juncture of the separation and individuation process the child is challenged to re-identify who he is, his relationship to others and the world around him. At birth, as at each transition point, the child transitions from a place of relative homeostasis to a period of stressful adjustment, which will ultimately lead to a new level of comfort and familiarity. What could be a more dramatic illustration of this cycle than a child transitioning from his life in utero, physically united and completely dependent upon his mother, to being an independent and physiologically self-supporting being?

The young infant is vulnerable and tentative, but over time becomes stronger and gradually develops a mastery of infancy. And then he is once again ready for change and transformation. The next major milestone comes with self-mobility. With the ability to move on his own the child enters a new world of independence and autonomy, and again will need to readjust his sense of self and his relationship to the world around him. As in each juncture point the level of stress is high, not only for the child but for the caregivers as well. If you've ever had primary responsibility for the safety of an actively exploring young toddler then no explanation is necessary! Following her around from room to room and place to place as she tirelessly explores her suddenly expanded environment is exhausting.

The next major juncture point begins when the toddler stage ends and early childhood begins, typically from about two years and nine months to three years. This is often the time that a structured and organized preschool is introduced (as distinguished from child care or play groups). The transition from toddler to young childhood is evidenced in many ways. There are the physiological changes: the child literally stretches out, and the proportion of the upper and lower body gives him the appearance of adult maturity -- all the parts seem to be for the first time working in harmony. By this time most children have mastered self toileting. The normally developing child has also accessed a new level of language mastery, and is able to fairly reliably not just make his needs known, but actually carry on a fairly sophisticated conversation. He is now ready to reach out to his peers with a new maturity, and will begin to establish truly interactive friendships. He is less self-focussed and begins to develop genuine curiosity and interest in the "other." He is at an early point of moving beyond his own egocentric needs and interests, and is consequently now ready to share and cooperate in a group setting.

As exciting as this can be the child also responds to these new challenges with an understandable ambivalence. Some mornings she'll seem nothing but eager to go to preschool, only to have a major meltdown when it's time for you to leave. Often regression will occur: toileting takes a step backwards, or she'll engage in baby talk or other behaviors left behind long ago. It's important not to panic but instead to see the ambivalence as natural and to be expected. Ambivalence typifies every transition point in the separation and individuation process.

This is yet another time when you are called upon as a parent to access your best intuitive and sensitive self. Partly what she is expressing with her ambivalence is her own uncertainty that she can handle these new challenges. It is possible, if not always easy, to both empathize with her understandable feelings of ambivalence, while at the same time holding the confidence she lacks. In this way she will gradually internalize that same sense of confidence, and eventually achieve a new level of homeostasis and mastery. Until of course it is time for the next step in the lifelong process separation and independence, the incremental movement from dependence to autonomy.

From the Parents

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