Separation anxiety can be heartbreaking for parents--it is for me.
This morning was heartbreaking. (To read about my complete meldown, click here.) It all started with a morning cuddle, my 6-yr old climbing into bed, sharing sweet nothings about life. 20 minutes later, when I told him we had to get up and get ready, he started to cry. He begged me to let him skip school, told me he had a fever, and then that he had a headache. He moved slowly, protesting every step of what is normally a functional and easy morning routine. By the time we got in the car to head to school, we were late.
When we arrived the playground was empty. The bell had rung and everyone was in class. He started crying again, screaming that he wouldn’t let me leave, that he was coming with me, that he wouldn’t stay at school.
We made it to the classroom, and as all the kids left for P.E., he grabbed on to my coat. I struggled to get free, to remain calm, and to keep loving him through it all. I finally broke free, and I turned and walked up the path to the gate. He yelled out, “mommy, I want to say bye!” I looked back, and saw my sweet 6-yr old, tears streaming down his face, held by his teacher in a firm bear hug. I waved, smiled, said “bye, I’ll see you at pickup!”, and walked to my car. As soon as I got in the tears started streaming down my face, my heart broken.
Children are all different. Some have severe separation anxiety, while others seem ready for sleepovers at age 3. For those of us with attached children, it can be difficult to know when, and how, to leave our children. And it can be hard not to feel like we somehow contributed to the anxiety. Did I not spend enough time holding him when he was a baby? Is it because I had to work?
If your child has a hard time leaving you, here are a few things that might help make the separation easier on you both.
1. Make sure you feel good about where your child is going. If you have doubts about whether your child will be happy, these doubts will leak onto your child and make them even more anxious. Do what you need to do to know that you are leaving them with loving caregivers, in a safe environment, where they will have fun, learn, and grow.
2. Create a routine. Children love routine. It helps them understand what comes next, even before they know about time. With a routine they can make sense of what can be a big, scary world. Follow your routine as much as possible--even take the same route to school every day!
3. Practice no-drama goodbyes. If you are certain that you are leaving your child in a good place, then keep the goodbyes short and sweet. A hug, a kiss, a wave--and out you go. If you linger, give repeated hugs and kisses, and act as though you are reluctant to go, your child will notice and will make it even harder for you to leave.
4. Don’t get angry or embarrassed. It is completely normal to feel like your child is “doing this” to you, especially if they create a scene while every other kid waves goodbye and then gets to work. Know that your child loves you, and doesn’t have the ability to express emotion in the same way as adults. And even though its natural to feel embarrassed by an out-of-control child, the only thing most parents feel is empathy for you and your child.
5. Be clear about and stick to your pick-up arrangement. Your child might be feeling anxiety because they have a hard time undersatanding when you will be back. Talk with the teacher to find out what the activity is just before you arrive so that you can give your child a way to understand when you will be back. And, as much as possible, pick your child up when you say you will. This will build trust for your child, and make it easier for them to know that you will be back.
If you follow these steps, you will be on the path to creating a strong bond of inter-dependence with your child. You will appreciate each other and the time you spend together, and also the time that you are apart. So take heart and know that although it isn’t easy, a few simple things can make it less heartbreaking.