Separating Separation Anxiety

Dear Parentworks, 

My five year old daughter has recently begun doing something very strange when I drop her off at school. It's almost like she's having separation anxiety all over again like when she was two. She wants me to stay with her at school and has a fit if I don't! She says she sees other mom's at school and they're kids are getting to spend extra time with them and she wants that too. We've had some changes over the past few months, but I thought things were settling down at our new home and at this school. I think it should be ok to leave her, but I am a little worried about what the other parents or teachers might think when I leave. I plan help out at school some time, but I'm just really busy right now. I try to tell her this but it doesn't seem to make enough of a difference. Shouldn't she be over this by now? I have a lot on my hands and this is getting stressful for me! Should I give in and volunteer even though I don't have time or stay firm until she gets over this?

- Separation Insecurity

Dear Separation,

Each of us has our own, internally controlled, "stress-o-meter" which regulates how many pressures we are able to handle. Some people are able to tolerate stress better than others. When there are multiple changes at one time in a family's lives - it's not uncommon for some areas to start feeling like they're falling apart. Often, because children have fewer emotional defenses to cope with a stressful world than adults, they express the stress which everyone might be feeling - but working to ignore. When this happens, it is important to try and sort out all the different areas which could be affecting their child's response. Children who are aware and sensitive can be especially susceptible to this phenomenon. These children may be responding to their environment on a very emotional level. In addition to what they themselves feel, they can literally feel the energy from the stress of adults with whom they have a close connection. There are some things we can control and other things which are beyond our ability to affect. This sorting out process can help us separate which areas we may be able to improve or modify from those we can't change. If you are certain nothing at the school is cause for concern, then consider your family situation.

You mention a number of changes your family has recently experienced. Our bodies don't differentiate between a positive stressor (winning the lottery) or a negative stress (relatives visiting for two months) so as far as our physical body is concerned change is stressful and any change can affect us. Often, children can seem as though they are doing great with two or even three changes but eventually the stress can get to them too. Then all they know is that they feel yucky inside. It is not uncommon for them to exhibit regressive behavior (like re-visiting separation anxiety or even toileting issues) on into the school years because they are striving for that familiarity of a more secure time.

Adults need their own time, especially during hectic times (sometimes for business, sometimes just to reconnect as adults) and it is really important for the adults to get those breaks. You child may have been coping adequately as your family experienced many of the changes you mentioned. Sometimes, once life settles down a little, people of all ages can break down and begin demonstrating all the stressors they'd been keeping inside. Your child is letting you know she needs you now. She may be feeling that she has been - literally - left behind while all these other issues took you away from her (mentally or physically).

Some of the things you might try could be talking to her when things are relatively calm, letting her know that you know she has been worried about things, let her know it's OK that she feels that way but reassure her that you and your husband will take care of her and that you grown ups will take care of the worries. Let her know that you know it's hard for her when you leave, and you understand those feelings. Give her words to express her feelings; lonely, sad, disappointed, worried, bored - whatever you think. Then let her know that there are still going to be times when you need to be gone but that you'll always come back. Stress before and after you leave and come back what has just happened; i.e. "I know you don't/didn't want me to go. I understand but I needed to go. But see, I came back. I'll always come back."  And finally, during this especially stressful time, try to make sure you do have special time just for the two of you. That could also be part of her reluctance for you to leave - all day school is a huge change for many children even without added elements. If you can't spare time to volunteer at school ensure and re-assure her that you two will have your own time together (special time with dad would be great too) - it's most helpful if this time is reliable and predictable so that she can be sure and count on it happening over and over again. With your reassurance, patience and time, things will get better.