Gently Parenting Separation Anxiety
I am so grateful for the group of Mamas in my life. I have so many questions about parenting and my journey in motherhood. Loving that I have this wonderful resource - a collective of strong, gentle, nurturing souls surrounding me. Some are near (I can chat with them at the park) while others are hundreds of miles away (we stay in touch via Facebook) - but they all offer such amazing insight and perspective to every hiccup or challenge I have so-far encountered.
Here is a for instance: Today, this was my plea:
Layla (6) started camp this week. She loves being there, has so much fun, but leaving her in the morning is such a production. She cries. She's scared. She doesn't want me to go. She feels afraid "without mommy there". Etc.
She has always been sensitive but when I'm trying to wrangle all three of them I get so so anxious and overwhelmed at this. I want to validate her feelings but I also want to push her to have fun with her friends and have some space without us for a bit.
I want her to honor her commitment. But I also want her to feel safe, listened to, and just have fun.
She's like I was as a child - miss responsible. Her own worst critic. Harder on herself than anyone else could be.
We homeschool and this just makes me feel awful - like I am doing her a disservice. It makes me feel like maybe my homeschooling her is making her extra clingy. We are out of the house almost every day - at workshops, at friends', socializing, playing....she loves that (but I'm always present).
I feel like this is extreme separation anxiety for a six year old and I'm not sure how to get through it - in a positive way. I don't want to bully her through it, but I also think she could use some time and space of not having to play the role of "big sister".
I don't know. I'm so conflicted and I don't know how to help her.
She had such a hard time today that she chose to come home instead. I can't have this fight every day.
I wanted to bribe her into staying. I tried to lighten her anxiety by telling her we would meet her during playground time. She was excited about this the whole morning....until we got to camp. Then she melted down.
I wanted to force her to stay.
A part of me wanted to shame her into staying (You're six! Most six-year-olds do this.)
I actually told her if she came home we would do "none of the fun stuff" (this I am absolutely not proud of).
I wanted her to just "suck it up" and "follow through".
And then.....I took a deep breath.
I saw her eyes and heard her words (and the sound of her voice). Through the chaos of Lincoln melting down because he was ready to nurse and nap and Lillian's constant interuption because she wanted to go outside and play, I finally managed to listen to her scared voice. And I said:
"Okay. Go get your bag and your towel and we will go home."
I knew better than to say much else because I was feeling upset. Upset that my six year old couldn't handle being away from me for half a day. Upset that camp wasn't so magical that she didn't want to stay forever and ever. Upset in the feeling that I could be doing her a disservice - the whole "homeschooling thing." Sure, she was socialized, but apparently she hasn't exactly separated "healthily" from me. There. That was it. It was guilt that made me want to override her feelings and words and make her say. I felt responsible. I felt like I might be screwing her up forever more because we hardly ever have a chance to separate. I am within arm's reach, if that's what she wants, daily. I suppose I was also feeling a little embarrassed that other people don't understand and judge our "homeschooling lifestyle".
But then I regained perspective. I remember being young and wanting to be close to my house...my family....my parents. I know what it feels like to have plans changed, new places to be, and routines to establish. I never did well (and still don't, honestly) with a disruption. And I listened to her.
All she could muster were gurgles and lip quivers and "no, mommy, don't go"s and pulling my arms and legs to keep me close (yes, my six year old).
Eventually I got this out of her when she had a chance to calm down a bit and we could talk to one another:
"I am scared, Mommy. I am scared to be away from you. What if something happens to me? What if something happens to you? What if I need you and you aren't there?"
The more I think about it, the more I am not surprised. She used to do fine with the task of separating. She loved seeing friends, going to workshops and classes, sleeping at Grandma and Poppop's. But then, mid-year she started freaking out about all of it. Her anxiety was at an all-time high. She did not want to leave my sight. We did a lot of breathing through it. A lot of talking through it. A lot of talking through our routine and what would happen. We used rescue relief. Lavender spray. Special friends...whatever worked to get her through the day. Her anxiety seemed to lessen (though it never went away completely and separating was still not easy).
I truly believe she reached a developmental milestone of some kind; of greater understanding of how big (and sometimes scary) the world was. I think she was beginning to realize that things happen (all the time) out of her control - that something had the potential to happen to any one of us at any time and that underlying thought caused her great distress.
Last week we had an incident with Lillian (3) while we were at the Children's Museum. She had a seizure and we had to go to the hospital. Layla went with family while I went to the hospital with Lillian and she had no idea what was going on (we didn't have many answers at the time) or when she would see us again. The last thing she (probably) remembers is seeing her baby sister laying on the ground, listless, surrounded by her own vomit and not responding to Mommy's voice - and Mommy having to leave her (while she was scared) to be in an ambulance with Lillian and go to the hospital. I am certain (in my heart, and after taking this day to reflect on her insecurity) that it rekindled her uncertainty in the world and in the people around her and in the unknown of "emergency situations". All of the uncertainties. All of the what-ifs.
So here I am, on the other side of this day - reflecting on her behavior; her words; her actions; her body language. This morning I was upset that she wanted to come home with me. Tonight, however, I think she needed to come home with me (for whatever reasons she had in her heart). Today all the children played more lovingly and amicably than most other days. Today, Layla was such a big, sweet, sensitive soul. Today, we talked. Today, we listened. And today I reached out for advice from my amazing Mama support system. I am so grateful I was able to talk through my thoughts and emotions with a group of positive-parenting, big-hearted, loving, amazing women. I could have gotten a lot of "you're crazy. You should have made her stay there" advice. I could have gotten "you have to tear off the bandaid sometime" sentiments. But, instead.....this is what I got:
- Hugs Mama. I think it's wonderful that you're opening up about this and willing to ask for support. In my personal therapy, I have noticed that as I make breakthroughs, my girls are there to test me with the worst displays of our old challenges. I go back to prayer and forgiveness every time. Gratitude also helps and I've seen you working through that. I think what you're doing is wonderful and you know the girls better than all of us. I just want you to know that these shifts we make are worthwhile and our children will pick them up at their own time, especially when they know that we'll love them through the hard days.
You mentioned that you feel anxiety from the drop-off. Is there anything you can do to help yourself?
- My son is 7 and really just got over that this year (& he goes to public school). The guidance counselor (who is AWESOME), had to meet him at the door in order for him to leave my side. So it may have nothing to do with homeschooling her. We have seen a therapist as a family just to make sure that communication is open within the family unit- highly recommend it! Also reassured me that there was nothing 'wrong' with him. Try asking her in a matter of fact kind of way specifically what her concerns are about leaving you. Is she afraid you won't come back? Is someone being mean to her? Really explore gently with her:). I feel your pain!
- I remember at a meeting at my kids' school, one of the fathers admitted that he cried every time he was dropped off at school until 3rd or 4th grade. He has 5 boys and he sees his middle boy doing the same. He talked about how he was ok with it & understood that it was just his way to grieve being away from family. He gives his son a big hug and reassures him. He makes sure his son knows there is nothing wrong with showing his emotions. I am not sure this is helpful to you but it might reassure you that some kids just have a harder time with transitions & letting go. It has nothing to do with what you did or didn't do.
- Being on the receiving end of kindergarten (aka teacher) I can assure you that everything she is experiencing is absolutely normal for her age! She sounds like a sweet soul! one thing that I often have to remind myself and the parents in my care is that we need to teach children not to be afraid of their emotions by showing that we trust them and that they can trust in us. If she cries we comfort and show empathy and respect for her feelings. We still go ahead with our plan because we know that the challenge we have set before her is within her reach and we show her that we trust she can manage. Often what will happen is that the little one will cry, which is so hard for the parent because they don't see the child immediately end their tears as soon as the parent is out of view and literally jump into play!
I always call the parent right away and they are amazed at how quickly their child has moved on. I agree with that some children just need to release their big emotions to their parents as their way to prepare for the next part of their day.
- One of my favorite quotes that has helped me understand my role as a guide to children is by Magda Gerber: "Always be open when your child says he is afraid. Never belittle him by saying, "There's nothing to be afraid of." Don't argue about fear. Listen to whatever your child wants to express. You don't always have to share the fear, but always be willing to listen.
Refrain from saying, "That's silly. That monster under your bed doesn't exist," because it exists in your child's imagination at the time. You have to become a good listener. Later in life people pay huge amounts of money to therapists who don't do anything but listen. Perhaps you can avoid that by listening to him now."
- Some small things- taking a transitional object with her, reading books about the separation and coming back- we have a couple you're welcome to borrow. Hugs!
- I just want to tell you that I've seen many a homeschooled kiddo really come in to their own independence around age 7 or 8 (including my own). 6 is still quite young and even though many kids are dropped off at school/camp at that age, it doesn't always go smoothly. I think its just the age, not homeschooling, maybe she worries that she might be missing out on something awesome you guys are doing without her? Can she bring a special stuffed toy or a pic of you with her? Could you include a surprise note and treat in her lunch for her to look forward to? Maybe plan a super fun after camp activity to anticipate?
- My daughter experienced the same transitional stress/issues. (ironically my younger daughter will just jump out if the car and run throwing an arm up and yelling "Bye Mama!!").
What was helpful for her was having a ritual. We would talk about it the whole way there (sometimes in repeat). "I am going to walk in with you, help you take off your backpack and sun hat. (Pause) i will give you your first hug and kiss then we will walk to the playroom. Then we will sign in and you will walk me to the door. I will give you your second hug and kiss and you can open the door for me. I will wave and then you will have fun with your friends." The predictable routine and talking through it on the way there and the as we were doing it was realllllly helpful. She is a deeply feeling soul and the gentle routine seemed to make the otherwise overwhelming idea of me leaving her for a time manageable.
- My youngest has a lot of anxiety. When dropping him off anywhere I went about 30 min early & told him I would stay until he was ready for me to go. He was in control. It was very helpful.
I am amazed at, not only how many other children go through this, but also at how many wonderful tips, tricks, tools, and positivity came from putting myself out there. I am hoping that some of these things will resonate with you and that you can find peace and ease in whatever parenting challenge you are currently facing (or gathering tools for the future).
Here is another great resource I was given by a mama-friend from Code Name Mama
Ideas Gently Manage Separation Anxiety