Separation Anxiety: My Story
Oh my. These words first entered my world back in 2010, when my oldest son was around 9 months old. BabyCenter told me that it was perfectly normal for children around this age to start to experiencing separation anxiety from their parents. It usually peaked between 10-18 months and most children learned to say good-bye without hysterically crying around 2 years old.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
For a good 1.5 years, my son would SCREAM when I would drop him off at the nursery at church. I got paged to come pick him up on more than one occasion because they could not settle him. If you are the parent of a child who has never experienced this, let me tell you how lonely this stage of parenthood feels.
I would watch all these “well-adjusted” children be dropped off, without a second look back at their parents, as I cringed at the sounds of my son SCREAMING above all the other children. He would start crying in the parking lot, cling to me when we entered the nursery room, and bolt towards the door as soon as I said good-bye. Our church nursery was a safe and loving environment, so it was not as if he was unhappy due to lack of attention or care. He was (is) just a super anxious child.
After a few hundred times at church nursery, my son finally began to go without crying at drop-off. WIN, right? Sure, until it was time to switch to the older kids’ nursery room a few months later. And then at 3.5 years old, the kids start attending Sunday School – less playtime and more actual learning in this room.
Holy heck. We tried and tried for months. Months. We ended up bringing him into church with us for a few weeks (which was NOT fun having a 3.5-4-year-old sit with you in church). It took him about 9 months, but one day he finally decided he would go to Sunday School.
Aside from the church setting, my son started part-time preschool (9-12 pm) when he was 3 year old. He actually did ok his first year there, with minimal tears. When he was 4 years old, we put him in full-time daycare for 3 days a week. He cried at drop-off for 2 weeks. At home, he would ask me each night if he had to go to school. He wanted to be with me all day.
As a parent who has had many, many nights crying, stressing, and questioning her parenting abilities due to her child’s separation anxiety, it is such an isolated place to be in.
Why is my child the only one not adjusting?
I can tell you that for our family, it eventually did get better. So much better. He walked with his head held high, giant smile across his face as he entered kindergarten on the first day of school. My husband and I cried, of course, on his first day of school, but there was so much more pride that came on that first day of school for us. The moment had finally arrived, after all those years of tears at drop-off; that moment was so special for us. It was almost as emotional for us as the first time he rolled over as a baby or took his first steps. It was such a huge milestone for us and one in which he had to overcome entirely by himself.
Tips and Tricks to Deal with Separation Anxiety
If your child is experiencing separation anxiety, I can tell you that eventually IT WILL GET BETTER. I am not an expert, and I think it had to do more with the passage of time and a little bit of luck, but here are a few things we tried (and are still trying with our other children) during our very intense stage of separation anxiety.
Don’t forget, every child is different, so these tips may not necessarily work for your child.
As painful as each drop-off may feel, my number one tip is to keep trying. And trying. And trying. Each and every day/week. It can feel as if there is no progress being made, but there is. If it gets to be so bad, read your child, and perhaps a break is necessary. It was for our family. But then try again in a few weeks.
One childcare worker suggested that we “sneak” out when our child was distracted. In other words, trick your child into thinking you are there and then suddenly disappear. In the throes of our struggle, I was willing to try anything. Let me tell you. Do not try this. It only created more hysteria when he realized I was gone, and I’m pretty sure set us back on some trust issues for a few months. Always say goodbye, even if they are happy until you say those words. Even though son #3 seems happy in nursery until I say “goodbye,” I still say goodbye each time because the sneaking out days scarred me too much.
Find a Trusted Adult
I think this is key, and I truly believe this is what eventually got us to a place of happiness when I would drop him off. At church nursery, one patient nursery worker, the same lady each week, would take my son at drop-off. She got to know him, and his love for numbers and letters. She eventually knew what toys would calm him down. It was not overnight, but eventually this angel of a lady was the person my son trusted at drop-off. In larger settings, it may not always be easy to find one person to give your child that one-on-one attention. If you talk to the teachers and staff ahead of time, they may be able to find someone to specifically comfort you child at drop-off. A familiar face of someone who shows interest in your child may be the trick to overcoming his/her fear of drop-off.
Picture of Mom/Dad
At preschool, I would put a picture of myself and my husband in our son’s backpack. I sprayed it with a little bit of my perfume. Whenever my son was feeling sad about missing us, I told him to just look in his backpack, and he would see us.
In my most desperate hour, I googled books that would help with starting school (full time preschool in our case). I didn’t think the book I chose would have a monumental effect on our lives. I figured it would just show my son an example of a child who was scared to go to school and how that child eventually learned to be happy at school.
This book was AMAZING. Not only does it tell a story of a child (racoon, actually) who is afraid to go to school, but it actually gives a physical way for your child to feel in control of saying goodbye and deal with missing you throughout the day. The premise of the book is that you each kiss the palm of each other’s hand, wrap up your kisses in your hand, and whenever either of you are feeling sad or missing each other, put the kiss from your hand up to your cheek, and you will remember how much the other person loves you. Sounds lame and like something your child would never do? My son ate it up. We did the Kissing Hand almost every day of full-time preschool. He still talks about the book, and I will never throw it away, it means that much to me.
Talk About Your Feelings
My son was sad to go to nursery/Sunday School/preschool because he was missing me, not because he didn’t like nursery/Sunday School/preschool. He would let his fear of me leaving get in his way of enjoying the activities there. So I would first acknowledge his feelings of sadness and fear. I never told him not to be sad or that it was bad to cry. Then, I would tell him that I also felt sad when I had to say goodbye to him. I told him that I missed him when I was at work or sitting in church without him. That way he understood that I was missing him just as much as he was missing me. I think that made him feel like we were both in this sadness together and that we both had to learn to get through it together.
Reward at Pickup
For the first 1-2 weeks at full-time preschool, I would reward my son for staying the full day and participating in the activities by taking him out for ice cream (or small treat) at pick-up. This may be the wrong approach, but I like to look at it as positive reinforcement for doing something that was not easy for him. Eventually, we kept our ice cream dates to just Fridays. If your child is more into small Dollar Tree toys or tablet time or special time with mom/dad, you could adjust to whatever your child chooses.
Do Not Stay in Room
In my time of desperation, I thought that maybe if I stayed in church nursery with my son, he would see how fun it was and eventually be happy enough with the toys there that he wouldn’t need me. I thought if he would just calm down long enough to see the fun toys they have, he would see that nursery was a fun, positive place. Learn from my lesson: staying with your child in the place they need to learn to be without you will only make the separation process take longer and does not guarantee that they will be any happier when you leave.
Shorter Days, Fewer Days, or Mommy and Me Classes
For preschool, if your schedule allows, try shortening the hours your child is away from you. If your preschool offers a 3 hour program vs. a full-day program, try starting your child in the 3-hour program. If your preschool offers 3 days week vs. 5 days a week, try starting your child in the 3 days a week program. My middle son had a really hard time at the first daycare we put him in. Luckily, and I know this is not always possible, we pulled him out of that daycare and my mom was able to watch him for the next year. Later in that year, we discovered a preschool that offered Mommy and Me classes for 2-year-olds, where he would attend with grandma for a few hours. The following year, he seamlessly entered the 3-year-old classroom at that same school. The Mommy and Me classes allowed him to become comfortable with the preschool facility and introduced him to early education. (This is not in contradiction to tip #8. The intent of the Mommy and Me classes is not to eventually have the child attend those classes without a caretaker.)
This is the least exciting and most frustrating tip, but time was ultimately our biggest factor in our son overcoming separation anxiety. My son just needed time to learn how to be away from us and process his fears and feelings on his own. The hardest part about separation anxiety is that the parent cannot control the outcome of the situation. The child must make the decision and choices on his/her own to be comfortable with leaving you. As all the tips in this post help, it was the passage of time and maturity of our son that eventually lead us to a happy place at school/church drop-off.
As a mother who has been in the deep trenches of separation anxiety…
It feels as if it will never end, that your child is the only one not adjusting well, and that there is no hope to its demise. I can tell you that eventually it will end. My son was a hard case, too. There will come a day that your red-eyed, hunched over, timid child will walk straight up to the [enter any grade level or activity setting] door with a giant, confident grin on his/her face, kiss you goodbye, turn to his peers, and never look back at the door for you. You won’t even be that sad that he didn’t need to check for you anymore. All those blood-pressure rising drop-offs will melt away, and it will make you wonder why there isn’t a page in his baby book for this oh-so-important milestone in his life.
My son’s first day of preschool, 2013 (left) vs. my son’s first day of kindergarten, 2015 (right)