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.
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