HOW TO HANDLE SEPARATION ANXIETY
Has your little one ever clung to you when it was time to drop them off at school, camp, or the babysitter? It can be so hard. As an early childhood educator and a mom of three, I have been on ALL ends of the separation/ attachment situation and it is not easy for anyone involved.
This year is Sloane’s second summer at day camp with her big siblings. The camp is on an island and the children take a ferry boat to get there and back. Last summer, I was a nervous wreck about sending my little peanut off to the island with the big kids. I was terrified it would be too long of a day for her. What if she slipped on the gangway getting on or off the boat? What if she needed something and couldn’t/ wouldn’t speak up in an unfamiliar setting? (By the way, I had zero qualms sending either of the big kids at her age, but I can’t help but feel protective of S). I was pretty darn good at hiding my uncertainty and exuded all of the confidence I could muster as I waved her off. Guess what? She was better than fine. She loved it and happily trotted off to the boat each morning.
This summer, the children and I were equally excited for camp to start. They couldn’t wait to get to their beloved island and sail, go tide-pooling and dock jumping. I couldn’t wait to wave them off and run home and tend to my fourth child- this little business of mine. All four of us eagerly awaited the first day.
When we arrived at the camp meeting spot, the kids excitedly clamored out of the truck and grabbed their backpacks and lifejackets. All of the sudden I felt Sloane’s little hand in mine and she looked at me with huge eyes and said, “I changed my mind. I don’t want to go to the island this year. I’ll just stay home with you, mom.” HUH? I was totally unprepared for this. Still, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Just first day jitters, right? Wrong.
I firmly and lovingly told her that it is okay to be scared and brave at the same time. It is okay to not feel one hundred percent comfortable and get on the boat anyway. She managed and I didn’t really even think about it for the rest of the day. She came home exhausted, happy and a smidge dehydrated. All good.
Day two? Not good. First of all, she woke up thinking it was a regular beach day for us. She was somehow shocked when I told her it was another camp day, and in fact, there would be camp all week. She was a little testy in the morning, but nothing totally out of the ordinary for my spicy girl. Off we drove to meet the boat. I walked her to her counselors and her group and her eyes filled with terror. She really didn’t want to go. She said that she is too sad saying goodbye and that she felt like she was going to cry for me the whole time on the boat. I stayed strong and told her that her counselors know how to help her and that soon she would feel better. I told her again, that it was okay to be scared and brave at the same time. Thankfully, Nate, my eleven year old, offered to sit with her on the boat. She still had to walk there with her own group and meet him, but that helped a bit. Little tears seeped down her face but she reluctantly went to her group. Like the day before, she came off the boat grinning in the afternoon, singing camp songs and retelling stories about her day over and over.
Day three was The. Worst. She clung to me the second we got out of the car. According to Sloane, there was NO way she was going to camp. No amount of comforting, cajoling, or distracting was going to snap her out if it. Oh, how I wanted to just scoop her up and bring her home with me. But here’s the thing- I happen to know a lot of separation and attachment. And I also know my girl pretty well. I am sure that she is having fun at camp. I am positive that this is just a hurdle for her to cross, not a massive mountain. (For some children it is a massive mountain.) She’s always been slow to warm up, but once she does, she can barely keep her mouth shut. Even through my own pain and anxiety about seeing her this way, my mom-instinct told me that she needed to face this head on.
Each morning, the children walked with their groups down to the dock to meet the boat. After peeling a crying Sloane off of my body, I cannot tell you how badly I wanted to turn the car into the dock parking lot and wave to her and make sure she was okay. You know, I just wanted to put my eyes on her one more time to make sure all was well. But I didn’t do it. You know why? Because that’s about me, not her. In this particular situation, my barreling in there and waving one more time, seeing her off for five more minutes, would only make the separation longer and more painful. Sure, maybe I would feel a touch better seeing her holding hands with her counselor or warming up to a friend, but if she saw me, the anxiety would return. So I didn’t do it. As I sit here writing this, I hope she is having a fun, carefree day, and that we will win this battle with separation without turning it into a war.
Five tips for helping ease separation anxiety:
Be honest. Do not sneak out. Even if it feels harder to stay, sneaking out only makes your child feel insecure. Show them that you can help them manage their emotions during the hard times as well as the easy, happy times.
Be confident. Our children take cues from us. From the time they are very small, our children reference us for feedback about new situations. Have confidence that your child can do hard things. Believing in them is more than half the battle. If you see their camp or school as a safe environment, they eventually will too. Acknowledge the uncomfortable feelings that your child is having, but stay calm and confident. Don’t be scared of their feelings or they will be too. Exude confidence in your child and their caregiver.
Tell your child where you will be. Give them an image in their mind (or for really little ones an actual picture of you) of where you will be. Example: While you are at camp, I am going to go to the store to buy food for dinner, then I will drive to work and then I will have lunch. After that, it will be time for me to come and get you.
Allow tears and other uncomfortable emotions. Separation can be difficult and it is so important to acknowledge that. You might be embarrassed or uncomfortable that your kiddo is the only cryer, but remember that expressing emotion is so healthy. Also, emotions show up in lots of ways, not just your typical teary eyes.
This too shall pass. I am currently IN IT, so I know how hard it is to believe. But, in his own time, your child will be ready to separate smoothly and so will you.
Five language examples to adapt to your own needs:
It felt to so hard to say goodbye to mommy yesterday. You cried and held me so tight. You are still learning that it’s okay to be away from me and that I will always come back.
It is okay to be scared and brave at the same time. Even though this feels tricky, I know you can do it.
Tomorrow, you will go to camp again. What would help you feel better about saying goodbye? Would you like to keep a picture of me in your pocket or bring a lovey to cuddle?
Even if you cry, and even if you are worried, your teacher will still help you say goodbye to me. She will hold your hand and stay with you until you feel like playing.
When it is time to drop you off at camp, I will stay for five minutes and then I’ll say goodbye. First we will find out the schedule for the day, then I’ll help you find your favorite counselor, then I’ll kiss you three times and say goodbye.
From one mama to another, I truly hope this post helps you find some solace in the pain of separation anxiety. - Lizzie