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Surviving a preschooler’s separation anxiety

October 16, 2014

I’ve come to believe that separation anxiety is the straw that breaks the backs of many moms. We can carry our heavy loads through many child-rearing deserts, but we Mom-camels collapse under the pressure of children suffering from separation anxiety. Our children cry as we leave them, and we cry our guilty little hearts out as soon as we are out of our children’s sight. We are left with those lingering questions: Should I leave them? Are they going to be okay? Am I a terrible mother for leaving my child?

I’ve gotten a little better at dealing with the day-to-day separation anxieties, since I’ve been dealing with them for about four years now with my oldest. Occasionally, she’ll tell me that her tummy feels sick in the morning as we get ready for school. I know her well enough to know what she means. She’s feeling a little anxious about starting her day. I tell her I’m sorry that her tummy hurts, but I don’t appear overly concerned. I tell her that I understand because sometimes when I think about something hard that I have to do that day, I feel a little nervous and my tummy starts to feel a little funny, too. And then we go on with our morning.

This week, though, we are facing more than the every-day separation anxiety. My husband and I are getting ready to take a long weekend away- the first time we’ve been away since our youngest was born. It is a much-needed respite from the demands of family life, and we are looking forward to having some time together.

For me, this vacation means:

Nobody screaming for food roughly seven seconds after I’ve opened my eyes in the morning

Having the freedom to use the bathroom anytime I want, alone, without worrying that a toddler is leaping to his demise in the other room

Not spending an hour preparing food that ends up being fed to the dog and stuck to the walls while my kids spend five minutes “eating” before I spend another half hour cleaning it up and wondering what the heck the point of all this is.

Sleep. Heaven-sent sleep that ends only when I say it does.

However, getting to this vacation has proven somewhat difficult. Yesterday, my daughter cried for a full 30 minutes about the coming separation. Her pain was evident, and my heart just ached for her. In those moments, though, I try to remember what I know to be true- that sometimes the right things and the hard things are the same things.

Here’s my strategy when separation anxiety sets in:

Listen and try to understand

In an effort to try to downplay a child’s anxiety, a lot of parents try to gloss over it when children present their concerns. In my experience, that only makes things worse. It makes a child feel isolated because they feel then that they are alone in their fear and pain. Over time, they’ll learn to stuff down their feelings because you’ve taught them it’s not okay to share them. I listen to my daughter when she shares her fears. I ask questions and try to understand her. I want her to know that I’ll always be here for her, no matter what.

Be confident

As I listen, though, I am careful not to give the impression that I am troubled by these things. I want her to know that I am confident that she can handle the things that she fears, that she’s going to be okay even though she doesn’t think so. I allow her a safe place to share her anxieties, and hopefully in return offer a little courage for her to take with her. She can borrow some courage from me when she’s feeling weak.

Provide a tangible reminder of my love

Giving her a little something special to keep in her pocket throughout the day to remind her of me works wonders in her tender, little heart. She feels like she’s close to me, and it gives her strength. Sometimes, I’ll let her wear a piece of my jewelry or carry a picture of us in her pocket. I have a little worry stone that I’ve kept for years, and often I’ve let her borrow it so she can have a piece of me with her. When she’s feeling anxious, she channels that nervous energy into rubbing the little worry stone, and it comforts her knowing I’ve done the same over the years.

Remember my real task

In parenting, it’s easy to get confused. Sometimes I feel like my job is simply to get through the day, keep the peace, survive. If those are my goals, when difficulties such as separation anxiety sets in, it would seem like the best thing to do would be to avoid the hardship. If a child is upset by your leaving, then appease them by not going away. What I try to remember, though, is that my job as a mother isn’t doing what my children want, it is doing what is best for them.

If my goal is to give them what they want, then I will feel incredible guilt when they are unhappy. However, if I realize my true calling is to teach them and prepare them for the world, I’ll be better able to manage my guilt knowing that I’m doing the right thing for them in the long run. I know that the truth is, it is good for my children to understand that they will be okay when other people care for them. It is good for us as parents to recognize when we need a recharge in order to be the best parents we can be. It is good for children to face their fears and come out on the other side. I don’t have a reason to feel guilty for leaving them, even if it’s not what they want from me.