When Your Kid Goes to School and a Stranger Comes Home



Ask Shauna 1

Q:  My daughter started Pre-K 2 weeks ago and I feel really unprepared for how much she is changing. Some of these changes are good, but mostly I feel like I sent off a 4 year old and a 13 year old came home. She is using words like “stupid” that we never use in our house, and she won’t hold my hand in front of any of the other kids. I am glad she’s gaining independence from me, but I don’t like the attitude and I feel like I miss my sweet little girl. What can I do to support her growth while helping her stay herself? 

first day of school, first grade, school, elementary school

Oh, Mama! Change is hard. Changes in our kids that we didn’t expect or don’t like can be brutal! First of all, breathe and pour yourself a nice glass of wine. I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that your daughter is doing exactly what she should be doing: beginning to differentiate from you. The bad news? She is beginning to differentiate from you. You have stumbled head-first into one of the most heart-achey and fundamental aspects of parenting, and school transitions (beginning school for the first time, changing schools, or moving up to a new grade or stage) are significant catalysts for differentiation from parents. Our own Heather wrote a great piece on her experience with this a while back.

From a child development perspective, differentiation is the process by which children, adolescents and teens gain greater independence from their parents and caregivers and increase their reliance on and identification with same-age peers. It’s the brain’s way of ensuring that children grow up capable of entering adulthood. Without it, children would be emotionally unable to navigate the elements of life such as school, friendships, and eventually moving away as young adults. Erik Erikson, the famed developmental psychologist, outlined the core existential-developmental questions for school age children and youth:

  • (4-5 year olds)       “Is it ok for me to do, move and act?”
  • (5-12 year olds)     “Can I make it in the world of people and things?”
  • (13-19 year olds)   “Who am I and what can I be?”

holding hands, boy, walking, letting go,

All of this is a fancy way of saying that your daughter’s hand-holding refusal in front of her peers is a completely normal, and in fact necessary, way of testing her sense of safety without the support of Mama’s reliable hand. It also reflects a developmentally appropriate awareness of her peers, in that she may not want to be seen as a “baby” by holding hands when others are not. As much as we moms hate seeing our kids tune in to a peer culture at the expense of the child we know them to be, this is a part of how they learn to live in the world. Her “stupid” bombs indicate that she is “trying on” new words and ways of being, and may in fact be looking to you to help her sort which ways of being are the right path. Four-going-on-thirteen is common for kids, and confusing for parents.

So, to answer your question about supporting your daughter’s growth while helping her stay true to herself, here are my best tips for navigating these new waters:

  1. Know your bottom lines. For some parents, “stupid” is a no-go, while others may choose to let their kids experiment a bit with language to sort for themselves what is ok. You have to know where you stand in order to know how to respond. If you’re in the “no ‘stupid'” camp, and when other deal breakers emerge, I recommend asking your kid about where the word/behavior came from and starting a conversation. Once your child has had a chance to voice their experience of it, you can just state your expectation clearly: “In our family, we don’t like to use that word because it can be very hurtful.”
  2. Avoid accidentally shaming.  Parents can walk off this plank without even knowing it. A simple comment like “Why didn’t you hold Mommy’s hand today? I was so sad,” can result in a child feeling guilty about their choice and therefor conflicted about what to do next time. Guilt can slide into shame really quickly in the littles. Something simple like “You can always hold my hand if you need to,” (said privately) gets the point you want to make (ohmygodholdmyhand!) across without stressing your kiddo.
  3. Get support. Parents have to manage thousands of tiny adjustments and losses as kids move through developmental differentiation, and it’s not fair or healthy for us to let our grief, stress, confusion or loneliness (yes, we get lonelier as our kids need us less) be a player in our relationship with our kids. They need to know we love them, we are OK, and we are proud of them growing and changing, not that we are anxious and sad. Anxious and sad require your real-life and/or virtual mom communities! Tell your story, shed some tears, pour over some pictures of younger and cuddly-er times with other moms (and dads) who know what you’re going through. Again, this process is something we ALL experience. You are not alone in the ache.school bus, kids getting on bus, first day of school

In my work with parents, I have said countless times that the job we are given is to raise our kids into confident, kind, and capable people so they can go out and live on the planet. Believe me, I wish as much as anyone that the job was to raise them to snuggle with me and live in the basement until I die, but it’s just not the deal. (I confess, I’ve been known to whisper “You’re going to live at home with Mama forevvvvver…” in their ears while rocking them. Creep fest, I know.) Hang in there, Mama. You are a warrior and your girl is right where she should be, “stupid” and all.

Shauna Silva, LICSW, CMHS is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and Child Mental Health Specialist who has worked as a Child & Family Therapist specializing in behavior challenges, parent support and coaching, trauma, special needs, and child development. This post is not intended to substitute for consultation with qualified health care professionals. If you have a question for “Ask Shauna,” please contact us at: info(at)burlingtonvtmomsblog(dot)com .

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Shauna is a native of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom and Middlebury College grad who relocated back to VT in 2013 after more than a decade in Seattle, WA, where she came to appreciate good Pho, Orca Whales and the magic of a long ferry ride. Shauna and her wife, Ang, are a proud 2-mom family with their toddler boy/girl twins. Shauna is a clinical social worker who worked as Child & Family Therapist, parent educator, trainer and consultant for over a decade before being dramatically humbled by her own pregnancy and parenting adventures. She currently works full-time outside the home as a mental health program administrator and full-time in the home chasing diaper escapees and reading "Goodnight Moon." She and Ang are thrilled to be raising their family back home in the Green Mountains where they expect the twins to get really, really good at hockey.


  1. Great piece Shauna! Love the part about guilt/shame. I try to teach this to the grandparents “Oh I am so sad you are leaving, why do you have to leave”.

  2. This is awesome! I was glued, I love trying to understand what is going on beneath the surface of my kids and this is so helpful, thanks!


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