The Transmission of Separation Anxiety from Parent to Child

Most parents are uncomfortable when their children are upset or cry. But some parents are much more troubled by their children’s feelings when the child is reacting to physical separation. For these parents, leaving their child with a babysitter when they go out to dinner or dropping them at daycare or preschool when they go off to work, is emotionally unbearable. For parents who find the process of separating with their children so intolerable, it is often the case that they had emotionally difficult separations from their parents when they were children. When a parent’s separation anxiety is so intense, it is often, consciously or unconsciously, transmitted to their children.

What is often overlooked in the separation process is that parents also experience separation anxiety when their children have to physically separate from them. It is more usual to think about separation anxiety as something that children experience when they have to separate from their parents. Between the ages of 3 and 6, being left with a baby sitter, being taken to school or day care are often developmental milestones that children learn to cope with. Typically, when a child first physically separates, she may become anxious, cry, or get angry. When she is left, she usually discovers that she is all right and can be distracted by becoming involved with the teacher or the baby sitter. Children soon discover that they can manage, that they will be okay, and that parents return. When this happens, they become less frightened and their separation anxiety is greatly diminished. In situations where the parent is anxious and worries about the child, it is likely to be more difficult for the child to feel that she is okay and that there is no need to worry. Under these circumstances, the separation process for the child becomes longer and more complicated.

When I talk with parents about their separation anxiety they might tell me “I hid my worry from my daughter. She has no idea how hard it is for me to drop her at school.” Unfortunately, even when the parent understands that it’s important to keep her anxiety from the child and feels like she has hidden it well, unconsciously the feelings tend to get communicated and the child feels the worry and the anxiety.

When I explore with parents what it is that they are worried about, I have found that they usually start by saying that they don’t know. When they think about it rationally, they say they know their child will be fine at school. But as they talk more, they seem to worry most about how their child will feel. It is very hard to accept that something could upset their child, that the child could feel scared, confused, uncertain, or angry. I ask, “Why is this something to be so worried about? What will happen if your child feels any of these feelings?” The first response to these questions is typically “I just don’t want my child to be upset or scared.” But when I explore further with parents, I find that they will bring up memories of when they were scared at school or upset when their parents left them with a babysitter to go out in the evening. One parent recalled a memory that he always worried that his parents wouldn’t come back when they went out to dinner and left him with a babysitter. Another parent remembered how when he got to school the first day he didn’t know where to sit and was embarrassed and upset. One parent described how in Kindergarten one of the other children made faces at him and he got scared. A fourth parent talked about how her mother was so worried about her going to school that she would constantly try to reassure her that there was nothing to worry about, that school would be fun. This parent went on to say that when her parent reassured her that way, she had no doubt that there was definitely something to worry about.

When parents have separation anxiety and reassure their children because of their own worries, that anxiety is felt by the child. The worried, but reassuring parent, like the parent I just described, often perpetuates her own anxiety as she remembers her own experience and then assumes her child will have the identical experience. In fact, it is the problem of identification with one’s children that often results in the transmission of the parent’s separation anxiety to the child. By identifying with the child (assuming you are the same), the parent is forgetting that the child is a different person and has her own individual feelings about the separation experience. When this identification occurs, a vicious cycle is created: the parent can only see the child as anxious, the child becomes anxious by taking on the parent’s anxiety, and the parent gets more anxious.

In order to help our children be less anxious when it is time for them to separate, it is important for parents to become clear about what their worries are for their child as she begins the separation process. In particular, parents need to think about their own separation experiences growing up and ask themselves if they are assuming that their children are going to experience the same thing. They need to ask why they would make such an assumption. There is no reason to think that our children have to repeat our experiences in the world. Most important is to remember that our children are different from us: they are separate unique individuals. It might also help parents to consider that if their child is upset, or uncomfortable, confused or uncertain, their child may be able to manage those experiences better than the parent did as a child. It might also help to know that when we allow our children to have these feelings, we create the conditions where they become resilient. It is important to prepare children to be in the world where they will have to tolerate a very wide range of feelings. Of course, we should never subject our children to feelings that are beyond their abilities to cope. But we need to have a realistic view of what they can manage. Learning that parents come back, that I will be okay if they are gone for a while, that there are other grown ups who can make me feel safe, are crucial lessons for children as they grow up to become separate, self confident, individual selves.

The task for the parent is to distinguish between her own and her child’s anxiety. First, parents can try and remember and be conscious of their own separation experiences. Then they can ask themselves to consider how their children are different than they are. They can remind themselves that their children have had different parents and different experiences than they did growing up. As a result, their children should not be responding like they did. The more parents can come to believe emotionally, not just rationally, that their children will manage the feelings that separations arouse, the more they will be able to really mean it when they reassure their children that they will be fine when experiencing separation.

© Copyright 2011 by By Beverly Amsel, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • NassauGuidance

    June 8th, 2011 at 10:10 AM

    “It might also help to know that when we allow our children to have these feelings, we create the conditions where they become resilient. It is important to prepare children to be in the world where they will have to tolerate a very wide range of feelings.” Excellent point! Some parents try too hard to protect their children from their own projected fears, but children need to learn to become resilient against the daily trials and tribulations of life. It’s how they grow into healthy, happy adults.

  • Jean.P

    June 8th, 2011 at 1:19 PM

    Well,I didn’t trouble too much as a child when I started off with school.And although kids feeling scared about having to stay away from parents is understandable,why is it that parents are so scared?I mean,the kid is safe in the school as you have mentioned!

    But parenthood brings that to you automatically I guess.Will find out in a few years :)

  • Meg

    June 8th, 2011 at 3:37 PM

    At church we parents all have to do our duty and keep nursery from time to time. And there are some parents that I see that make it all so much worse for their kids just by the way that they act themselves. Of course a child at a certain age can be anxious over leaving their parents for an unknown quantity, but there are so many who feed into this and have even stopped coming because the child cries a little. You have to establish some boundaries as a parent and commit to having a little you time, no matter how much the child protests. But we all know those parents who make things so much worse just with the way that they act and behave, and if they could let it go for a little, then the children are going to better too.

  • D.S. Hodge

    June 9th, 2011 at 12:35 AM

    My mother was a great advocate of you sneaking out when the child wasn’t looking if she was babysitting in case they had a fit about it. I’d seen her do this for years with my older sibling’s children.

    When it came to my turn to have kids, I refused to do it. You can’t spend your life sneaking around like that! I’d simply say Mom’s off to work now, be good for grandma, love you!, grab a quick hug and go.

    At first my daughter would cry and play up a little but that time got shorter and shorter (not that it was long anyway, ten mins at most my mom said). Within a month it stopped altogether. ( I think she realized grandma’s are so much more fun than moms too and they let you do the cool stuff. ;) )

    I don’t understand parents that make a big deal of leaving or have to develop ninja skills to get out the house LOL. Why oh why oh why??

  • Sbongile

    February 22nd, 2019 at 3:55 AM

    This comment made my day LOL, especially about developing Ninja skills to leave the house. I was starting to develop them for my then 1.5-year-old. But now she is in a different city from me and I am learning to be okay with that.

  • Rosie Phelps

    June 9th, 2011 at 1:35 AM

    @ D.S. Hodge: You said it! I would watch my sister’s son, who was two years older than my little girl, whine and cry and stomp his feet anytime she left him with me or any babysitter. I blame her though because she’d fuss around him and drag it out- “well I guess I should be going, oh don’t cry, I hate to see you cry, I’ll be back soon, I’ll bring you a toy”, (yes bribery- to get to her work in peace!). She’d be going to the door and standing in the door frame then coming back to comfort him with this forlorn look on her face etc etc.. Instead of just saying goodbye and leaving!

    He’s going to do what he’s going to do. You need to trust the adult can handle it which of course they can or you wouldn’t have them watching your kids. She drove me crazy with that and five minutes after she’d gone his tears had dried and it was all but forgotten.

    After reading this I think this is exactly what was going on, the transference of separation anxiety from her to him. She always cried when my dad went to work when we were small. Thanks for enlightening me, Beverly!

    My daughter was the opposite because she learned from an early age that if mommy doesn’t get to work on time, she doesn’t get any money and can’t buy her the nice things she wants like her toys and pretty clothes. She understood that concept real fast when it was put to her like that LOL. She and Grandma would wave me off from the window happily and she’d say
    Mommy’s going to get us some pennies. Then it was milk and cookies time. :) It became their ritual.

  • ryan

    June 9th, 2011 at 2:08 PM

    hey!I didn’t know that parents’ anxiety could be because they suffered anxiety as kids.it’s not easy to u derstand whythis happens but I’d like to say that if you have fears about separation then it is gonna affect you when it’s time for your kid to go to school for the first time afterbeing with you almost 24X7 since birth.

  • Thomas H

    June 10th, 2011 at 10:13 AM

    I hate to see parents who act more like a child than the kids do! You have to be willing to set a good example for your children.

  • Beverly Amsel

    June 18th, 2011 at 2:11 PM

    Jean P asks “why is it that parents are so scared?” Sometimes, as Meg pointed out, parents can’t bear to see their children suffer and so don’t provide a gradual withdrawal when leaving their children (especially at school). In fact, as D.S. Hodge remembers, his mother snuck out when leaving his siblings. And, as Rosie Phelps implies, when a parent fusses and drags things out, the parent is communicating that she does not trust the caretaker she has left the child with. When parents leave their children, they need to be comfortable and convey that to their child. While I have discussed how parents’ memories of their own separation can make them scared for their children, it is not just about parents’ being unable to tolerate their anxiety. We shouldn’t forget that parents want good things for their children. Very often they believe they are not doing their jobs if their child is unhappy or scared.

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