written by Amy Birdseye
edited by Lisa Rose
My child's separation anxiety caught me off guard. I think I had the mindset that kids love school and that it wouldn't be an issue for us. But my very aware, highly observant, and amazingly emotionally connected little kid is not one that runs off to school without looking back. In fact, learning how to say goodbye to me and learning how to enjoy school has been one of the largest challenges of his childhood. For me, it has been one of the most emotionally painful experiences to support him through. Yet at the same time, it has been the biggest honor of my mothering journey to encourage and love such an emotionally aware little boy and watch him transform from toddler to school kid right in front of my eyes.
I think one of the hardest parts about separation anxiety for me, as a parent, was that my child's anxiety triggered my own anxiety. Or more accurately, my anxiety triggered my child's anxiety. Together, our difficult emotions affected each other and created the perfect storm for a very challenging phase of our relationship and in his growth. When I put my son in school back in 2019, it took about 5 months for him to adjust to the change. During this time naps were dropped, early wake-ups and nightmares were constant, and he completely regressed from allowing anyone but me to help him in any way. After five months of working diligently on allowing his feelings about school and separation from me to be heard and supporting his emotions through this large challenge, he finally started to enjoy school then COVID struck. Schools shut down for safety, and we were suddenly back where we started. In 2021 my husband and I enrolled him in a pre-K program, and we felt like all of our hard work was null and void. All at once, we had to start all over again from scratch. Sleep regressed, behavior regressed, and, yet again, even my going to the bathroom without him resulted in streaming tears and desperate sniffles.
And this time, with an older child and the weight of COVID
resting too heavily on my exhausted parenting shoulders, I felt less patient, less understanding, and quite honestly, less of a supportive mother and more of a frustrated mother.
Now over the years of dealing with separation anxiety and generalized anxiety in my child and myself, I have discovered some things that actually help.
Harsh Reality: Separation anxiety doesn't always go away in 2 weeks just like everyone says.
1) Take care of yourself first
We parents tend to think of our kids first and ourselves second. I think it is hard-wired for us to protect and provide for our little babies. And though thinking of your child first is normal and to be expected, we need to set reminders to check on ourselves too. It's for that exact same reason that they tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping your child on a plane. If you pass out because you didn't give yourself air in time, you are absolutely no help to your child in an emergency. The same goes for basically everything involving parenting but especially when dealing with intense emotions from your child that you are allowing to affect your mental health.
If you don't take care of yourself, you will not be able to help your child effectively. And even worse, if you are allowing their feelings to put you in a negative place mentally, they are going to pick up on the very uncomfortable realization that
they have the power to rock you.
Kids need confident parents who show their children that they are loved and supported no matter how bad they lash out emotionally. So if we are in a place where we are lashing out emotionally at our child because they are lashing out...you both will be in the thick of a very challenging emotional crisis! Easier said than done, of course. It is incredibly difficult to think of your mental health as a priority for your child. But it is so incredibly important.
2) Change your mindset about your child's anxiety
It can be really challenging when your child is struggling with anxiety or even just generalized worry. The difference for me between anxiety and worry is that anxiety takes over more than just a moment of concern. If your child expresses worry about going to school on the drive, that is probably them simply expressing normal concerns about school. If your child expresses concern about going to school on the drive there, on the drive home, during home play, during mealtime, at bedtime, at 2:00 am...that is probably more along the lines of anxiety. It is something that takes over life for a little bit (or quite possibly a large chunk of time), and to support that amount of constant emotions from your child can be incredibly mentally draining. It is so easy to get into the mindset that your child is choosing not to be happy. That they are blowing things out of proportion. That they need to just drop it and move on. But that mindset — that your child's anxiety is irrational and should stop — gets you nowhere quickly.
If we as parents change our mindset to a place where
our child's anxiety is just as real as our own worries and anxieties,
then we can be much more respectful and compassionate
about what they are going through.
Once we allow these feelings that seem so irrational to our adult mind to be real and understandable, then suddenly negative statements stop popping out of our mouths. Things like, "You're not scared," "Stop crying," and "This isn't a big deal." In their place, positive things start coming to us. Things like, "I hear you. Is there anything I can do for you?" This has become our magic phrase. And it works because our son just wants to be heard and supported when he is feeling worried or anxious.
4) Separation Station
One of the most painful parts for us on a school morning was the drive there. The tears would pour down, and I had my hands full trying to drive us to school safely while simultaneously supporting his emotions and keeping myself from losing my cool. I realized pretty quickly that, for the sake of both of our mental health, I would need to set up some coping strategies for the two of us to do on the drive. That's how the Separation Station came to be. I created some visual imagery to help my child breathe, remember he is loved, visualize the process of being dropped off and picked up, as well as self-love and an emotional check-in. Not only did this give my child strategies to self-soothe during school and on the drive, but it also gave my child something to do on the drive, which significantly reduced the amount of stress and tears for both of us! I printed out my Separation Station, stuck it in a binder, kept it in the back of the car, and gave it to him on the drive to school. Because each step has imagery that he could process on his own, he was able to go through the steps in the back seat while I was driving and calm himself down. Even now that the Separation Station is no longer needed, we often use the same strategies to help calm ourselves down in a multitude of different situations without the binder. Download your own printable Separation Station in the insMOMnia store!
4) The Book/Stuffie Combo
One thing that really helped my kid with separation anxiety was what I lovingly refer to as "The Book/Stuffie Combo." There are so many great books out there with lovable little creatures that have to be away from their parent for a while. Reading one of these books repeatedly before school starts while snuggling a special school stuffie works wonders. I recommend getting all four of the following books if you are struggling with separation anxiety: Owl Babies, A Kissing Hand for Chester Raccoon, I Love You All Day Long, and The Night Before Preschool. All of these books have a cute little creature (besides The Night Before Preschool where the little boy has a bear) that your child can relate to. I suggest that several weeks before school starts you purchase at least one of these books along with a stuffie to "match it". Owl Babies? Purchase a stuffed owl. A Kissing Hand for Chester Raccoon? Purchase a raccoon stuffie. I Love You All Day Long? Purchase a pig stuffie. The Night Before Preschool? Purchase a bear stuffie. My son got a raccoon and A Kissing Hand for Chester Raccoon. I particularly like this book not only because my kid was able to bond with his own little Chester and bring him to school with him, but because we were also able to use a trick from the book called a "kissing hand." In the book, the mama raccoon kisses Chester raccoon's hand and tells him to press it against his face to feel her love when she is gone. We would do the same thing every time I left him at school. It works really well to give your child something to comfort them when you are away from you.
5) Days of school countdown paper chain
One thing that my child really responds to is information about how the school process will go. The power of knowing what to expect on a school day is not something to overlook. And the more information you can provide your child the better. We have a list of things we do in the morning before we go to school. Each item on the list has an image so that my kid can read the list himself. The reason that we have this list is that he finds comfort in taking control of our morning and knowing exactly what to expect before school. He knows that on a school day we feed the dog, let the dog out, do our daily calendar, make breakfast, eat breakfast, brush our hair and teeth, get dressed, pack the car and drive to school. We also have a list of the general schedule for his time at school with images as well. But one thing that I struggled to help him understand was how many days he would have to go to school before his break. He would fixate on this, and it was a major trigger for him because he didn't understand the concept. That is when we started the Days of School Countdown Chain. I simply took 3 strips of colored paper, wrote Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 on each paper (obviously change this according to how many days of school your child goes), and then I put little sticky velcro tabs on each one so that he could unlink the chain and relink it each week. Every day of school that he completed he got to take a link off the chain. This process helped him understand how many days a week he went to school and calmed his anxiety about how many he had left. Check out my printable Days of School Paper Countdown Chain to make your own.
6) Love token or keychain
The final thing that really helped my son feel connected to me even when we were apart was the "love tokens" I made for us. He had a keychain on his backpack and I had a necklace that we wore each preschool day.
Kids are really literal sometimes,
and my kid was seriously concerned
that I didn't love him unless I was right next to him.
These tokens, and a lot of discussions about unconditional love no matter where I was, helped my child realize that we both took our love with us wherever we went (both literally and figuratively) with our love tokens. Because I know everyone doesn't have the time to make a token I created the Always Loved Keychain for School Readiness that is available in the insMOMnia store!
Dealing with anxiety is super tough no matter who in your family is struggling. Remember that anxiety is very common. You are not alone if you or someone in your family is struggling with anxiety. I now think of my anxiety and the anxiety that my son expresses as road signs telling us that our bodies feel like there is danger ahead. And instead of ignoring the sign and driving on with blinders, I feel it is really helpful to see the sign that we need some extra care to prepare ourselves for what is to come. I hope these tips and ticks help you wade through the challenges of separation anxiety and come out the other side stronger than ever.