Starting School – Mothers who fear the Playground Mafia
I have been a counselling psychologist in SE England for 15 years and among my clients there are many mothers with small children. A phenomenon that I have become aware of over the years is how daunting the prospect of entering the playground is, not only for the children but for some first time mothers too.
In fact, most children in reception classes adapt reasonably quickly as teachers use proven methods to introduce and involve the children, protecting the shy ones from those who are more assertive or even challenging. Not so for the mothers … never was the jungle nature of the playground as obvious to new Mums venturing into it twice a day. It can be an ordeal for them and over time fear of rejection or not being in the alpha-mummy group can develop into a phobia that causes deep anxiety, but is difficult to express. After all, we are adults, aren’t we? Isn’t this fear of isolation, of rejection, of alienation something we left behind when we left school ourselves?
To be plunged back into an unstructured social context with no obvious rules can be shocking. Survival of the fittest can be all as savage second time round even if it is ever more subtle. What is going on?
One issue has to do with the way our brains are programmed to pick up on pattern matching. This can be a very useful human tendency. A problem we may have solved in the past is, consciously or unconsciously, measured against one currently puzzling us. It may be solved using similar strategies. Unfortunately, this tendency of matching experiences affects our emotions too - in particular, one of the most powerful emotions, fear. Situations similar to those which have caused fear before will have power to frighten us again. However, the instinct to react to fear is very much rooted in unconscious memories, so we find ourselves frightened for no apparent reason. Those of us who were unhappy at school may find ourselves strangely uncomfortable in a situation that mirrors the fears of childhood.
We all remember the groups from school who were ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’, and, dare I suggest, girls are particularly vulnerable and sensitive to either being popular or feeling like outsiders. All of a sudden these anxieties resurface. Mums who have had status or respect at work for being effective, talented or successful, find the task of seeking out the ‘in crowd’ of the playground baffling. There are no rules or structure. Friendships are formed and groups emerge and many are left standing, on the outside, confused about how to proceed. Many think ‘What do I have to do to be accepted?’ There is a fierce drive to get it right in case it negatively affects someone very important –‘… my precious child’.
Is there anything that can be done? Cognitive Behaviour Therapy would suggest that there are some automatic negative thoughts to be challenged. We are not at school any more, we have the right to make friends with those we find interesting, we don’t have to get on to the PTA committee. If it takes a while to find similar souls, is this a catastrophe? Our children will make their own friends in their own way, whatever we do.
Also there are some behavioural strategies. Try standing in the playground on your own and do some gentle relaxed breathing, telling yourself mentally that you are fine in your own skin, that this is not a crisis situation, you don’t need to rush into conversation and time will let you learn who it is you want to befriend, on an adult basis. If you have one or two friends after a time, this is fine, more will come if you want them. You have other friends, family and colleagues who like/love/admire you. You are only there for 15 minutes twice a day, it’s no big deal. This helps to relocate your thoughts in the present and deflates some of the irrational anxiety.
Another behavioural strategy is to get to know the school building and staff better. If you have time, volunteer to help with reading, library or art. As you frequent the school with a structured purpose and focus, a lot of the anxiety is depleted. The new environment becomes familiar to you and that naturally lessens your fears. It also gives you a side benefit – as you get to know the children you become quickly aware of the friendships you want to encourage and those you definitely don’t.
Over time, as the playground becomes familiar, you will start to make friends naturally, seeking out those with similar interests, activities or views on life. You may find you're in the in-crowd after all.
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