Dealing with Separation Anxiety: A Guide

Rebecca Hill

The first day of preschool went like this: the other kids were clinging to their parents, being shy, having trouble letting go of their blankies. My son looked at me and said, “You can go now.” And that was that. I took it pretty personally. I looked at his younger brother in the umbrella stroller and said, “I guess we’re not wanted here. Let’s go.”

And I cried all the way to the park. Fast forward a year or so, and trying to get my second child to let me go to, say, the bathroom by myself: that’s a different story. Now, part of the issue was his autism. Actually that was the issue. Children with autism often are unable to recreate a person’s face in their mind. Object permanence is also not a thing with them. So in effect you walk out that door, you have ceased to exist. That sounds pretty damn scary.

What also did not help was the fact that I am one anxious individual, especially when it comes to my children. I learned fast that I was unable to fake it. They picked up on my unsettled mama vibes damn quick, and if I wasn’t sure they would be okay, neither were they. So when I was putting my number two boy on the short bus, and I was absolutely freaking terrified because he wasn’t going to be able to tell me if people were nice to him during the day, he wasn’t okay with it either.


What does this have to do with your not-autistic kid that is freaking out and clinging to your leg when you are leaving? Actually, the tricks I learned in behavioral therapy with Mr. Spectrum have served me well with my subsequent neurotypical kiddos, so I think they’re worth sharing. You’re welcome.


Make a laminated picture of yourself smiling and picking up your child. This is especially effective for younger kids. They can carry it around, they can refer to it when they feel anxious. Mama is coming back. She always comes back.


Sort out your own anxiety. Do you feel comfortable and settled about where you are leaving them? If so, why not? Maybe take a minute to do some mindfulness meditation before the transition to help it go more smoothly. I know it sounds a little granola, but I promise, if you are calmer, junior will be, too. There are some great five minute ones on YouTube. Don’t try to fake it. If there are issues at school or daycare, work to get them addressed. If you have bad memories or issues around abandonment when you were young, find someone to talk them out with. It is entirely possible those are bleeding in to this situation and adding to the anxiety.


Are you feeling guilty about leaving your child? We all feel conflicted about work, or school, or even going on a date without our kids. Talk to other moms, a family member, someone who is supportive and gets it. Keeping that shit bottled up doesn’t help and, again, can really affect how your child feels about being away from you.


In the end we all deal with anxiety. You do, your child does, and it affects us all in varying degrees. It is okay to feel guilty or sad about leaving your child with someone else, or for your child to have a horrible, rotten time separating. Or the opposite! Just remember you’ll get through this, and it is okay to ask for help. The coping skills your child learns will last a lifetime, and with any luck you won’t have to do a presentation at work with a toddler attached to your leg.

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