Separation and Child Anxiety: All You Need is Love

Published Feb 15, 2013

Are you and your little one experiencing separation or child anxiety issues? A ChatterBlock parent shares her wisdom with how to deal with separation and child anxiety.

It’s 8:07 a.m. and my two-year-old son and I have just arrived at his daycare. We were in a rush this morning, and his daycare provider leaves by 8:15 to get her son to elementary school on time. I say my goodbyes; wish my son a wonderful day and turn to leave. That’s when it starts. The long stare turns to panic as he begins the drone cry that fills his eyes with tears in half a millisecond. His arms start flailing, followed by his legs.

I know I must go back and hold him and talk to him about our routine again. This is the first time he’s experienced this kind of parent-child separation anxiety in quite a while, but I know it’s because our morning was a rush. We didn’t get to spend much time together playing Lego, and I wasn’t able to sit at the table and join him for breakfast as I was feverishly slicing strawberries and peanut buttering bread for his lunch. This morning scenario is not too common in our household now, but it was for some time while we became accustomed to routines and how to make our mornings, (afternoons and evenings,) seamless and tear free.

My son has always been a spirited child. If you aren’t familiar with that term, it simply means that everything is more with him. If he’s happy, he’s extremely happy and bounce-off-the-walls excited, if he’s over-tired it is mayhem to get him asleep. Any event can easily turn from one extreme to the other — is this just toddlerhood?

One challenge and loaded learning experience has been finding constructive ways to channel his child-parent separation anxiety, and trying to stop it from happening as lovingly as possible. It began showing at a very young age. He wasn’t a baby who loved being held by just anyone, and he didn’t experience being left with another adult other than myself until he was almost one-year-old.

Just before his first birthday, he spent his days with my brother-in-law while I completed three-weeks of university residency. Every morning I would explain the course of events but as soon as we would arrive at his house, the panic would set in. The tears and screaming began instantaneously. He demonstrated such fear about being away from me, which, as he grew older began to affect how he adapted to any new situation. He’s a cautious soul by nature and even new playgroups, new children or adults, different surroundings and alternative foods set him off.

At first I felt like he would learn to cope through experiencing the feelings of child-parent separation anxiety. But as I watched him struggle to understand and adapt to new situations, my instincts kicked in. I believed that the kicking, hitting, biting, and smacking were all indicators that he was becoming a “bad” child and felt as though I’d failed him in some way. When I allowed myself to listen to and trust my instincts, I came to the realization that these behaviors were only his coping mechanism to deal with the anxious feelings he was unable to communicate.

Rather than focusing on the behavior he was exhibiting, I began focusing on the underlying emotion and cause of that behavior. Instead of addressing a specific behavior, I searched deeper to find the motivation behind that behavior — what is he trying to communicate to me? Since changing the way I approached my son’s child-parent separation anxiety, the incidents of tantrums, hitting, biting, smacking, and uneasy apprehensive behavior has decreased significantly.

Here is what I have learned:

Slow down. Unless it is an emergency, you have time to breathe and calmly talk to your child about what they are experiencing. I notice that the more emotional and frustrated I feel, the more agitated my son becomes, so breathing become key. Slowly talking and
gentle movements help to diffuse the situation.

Talk it through. I lower my tone and try to calmly address the specific situation. For example, if my son is feeling lonely or needy for extra attention he will throw his toys. While he needs to learn to vocally express himself while not throwing his toys, it is my
responsibility to be in tune with how he is feeling and to help him feel better. I kneel down to his level and ask him why he is frustrated and why he has thrown his toys. I usually follow this question with more questions — how are you feeling? Are you feeling lonely? Why are you feeling lonely? Would you like time to play with mama? He usually responds yes, or tells me why he is upset and we look for a solution.

Show care. A hand on his back or shoulder, a kiss on his head, eye contact — these are all things that demonstrate love and care for what he is experiencing. They help us both connect and discuss the situation calmly.

Find solutions together. Rather than tell my son how I want him to do something or how I want a behavior changed, I try to include him in the decision and boundary setting process. I give him options on how the behavior and feeling can be changed. When we find a solution that works for both of us, we both feel as though our needs are met. Sometimes these solutions and boundaries need to be repeated several times.

Focus on the feeling rather than behavior. I’ve learned that the more attention I give to understanding how he is feeling and what events led to that emotion, the quicker my son is to bounce back because his emotions feel validated. When he feels understood and knows I’m there to help him, he calms down. I noticed that the more I focused on what I didn’t like (biting, hitting, etc.,) and the more attention I gave those things, the worse they became.

Be consistent. Consistency can be difficult. Maybe you’re feeling tired, frustrated, or sad yourself, or maybe you’re just in a hurry. But I’ve seen changes in my son’s emotion-fuelled behaviors based on my consistency. When he knows that his feelings will be understood and talked about lovingly, the behaviors begin to diminish and disappear altogether.

Show love. That’s it: show love. These two words help curb any child-parent separation anxiety my son is experiencing. Stopping, picking him up for another hug, validating his feelings and assuring him that things will be okay and he will feel better through dual
decision making show him love and care. It’s what we all need, isn’t it?

After a reassuring hug and kiss, I left my son at daycare and he was fine. He even smiled and waved to me out the window, setting me up for a great day and reducing my parent-child separation anxiety as well!

Have questions about child anxiety? Join the conversation at ChatterBlock, or try Yoga for Anxiety!


Ashley Evans is the author of Pax On the Island

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