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Dealing With Separation Anxiety

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Author: Naomi Liddell

We’ve been having a bit of a tough time as a family of late. Thankfully, nothing is disastrously wrong, but we’ve been struggling with a parenting hurdle that’s consuming more of our time and thoughts than we initially hoped it would. Separation anxiety.

Over the last month or so, Ethan has been finding being away from me really really hard. We figured it was a phase that would pass and whilst this still may be the case, I’m currently trying to find ways to cope with it on a day to day basis. He’s 4 years old and goes to nursery for a few hours in the morning every weekday. He is also looked after by his grandparents three days a week while I’m at work. He is due to start school in August.

His reactions to my departure are pretty full on. He sobs, clings to my legs and asks me to “Pleeeeaaaaassssseee don’t leave me Mum. I just want to be next to you!!!”. This results in his caretaker picking him up and trying to distract him while he screams and reaches out for me. Needless to say, I often find myself in my car weeping afterwards. I’ve had discussions with him to find out if there’s anything going on while I’m not there that makes him upset (our minds always go to the worst places as Mums, don’t they?) but he maintains that he just wants to be next to me all the time. And reports are, once I’ve left and he’s calmed down, he’s very happy and plays away.

Even on my days off, if I budge from the sofa to go and make tea or if I’m not within eyesight, he’s immediately my little shadow. At dinner time he’s been pulling his chair around the corner and pressing it right up against mine. At moments, his attempts to practically be back inside the womb have even been comical to Gavin and I (and actually quite endearing to me), but at the times in which I’m leaving for work or other commitments, it’s really quite distressing.

Ethan has always been a Mummy’s boy. Poor Gavin is his absolute hero, but if I’m available, he doesn’t get much of a look in. He has also always been in some kind of part-time daycare and for a vast majority of the time has been great with drop-offs. This behaviour is new. We’ve been attributing the separation anxiety to a few things… Last year’s international move, buying a new house last month and my swelling belly as I reach month 5 of this pregnancy. A lot of change has happened for him and whilst at the time, he’s been very positive and took it all in his stride, perhaps, now that things are settling a bit more, it’s all starting to sink in?

Truth be told, I’m unsure of how best to deal with it. The tough love and ignoring his emotional pleas thing doesn’t sit right with me. Neither does mollycoddling him and keeping him off nursery just because he wants to be next to me. I’ve been trying to be firm but reassuring, telling him that he’s safe and that I’ll be right back to pick him up that same day, lots of kisses and cuddles but, as advised by the incredible nursery staff, making a quick and unfussy departure.

As time goes on, I’ve even started thinking about a ‘Happy Drop Off’ sticker chart, where he can get a toy at the end of the week if he gets enough happy face stickers. My only concern is that I don’t want him to feel like he’s not allowed to show negative emotions and rewarding him with toys, although I’ve done it plenty of times, always feels like I’m fostering the wrong kind of reward system. But the current winge, scream, sob routine is exhausting for both him and I (not to mention those looking after him in my absence).

So whilst I would have loved this post to have been ‘5 Easy Steps to Deal with Separation Anxiety’, I’m afraid as it stands, I have no answers. I’m guessing that some of you are or have experienced the same with your kiddos, at many ages and stages. If so, how do you cope? Did you do anything that helped alleviate it?

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Author
Naomi can’t decide which she loves more: adventuring with her boys or being left alone in a luxurious bath with a great book.
Follow Naomi on Instagram @naomiliddell

16 thoughts on “Dealing With Separation Anxiety

  1. Hey Naomi, I just wanted to say that I’m so sorry you’re experiencing that- it’s heart breaking. Our children have this incredible super power to make us feel like monsters…super guilty and of course like a rubbish parent.

    Whilst my 2 little girls don’t have the separation anxiety issue, they DO have plenty of other areas that my husband and I need to support them and work on…

    One piece of advice I got was (and I really hope it helps) consistency is key. When my little girl is being difficult, in like a grown up way, we find it very cute (occasionally) – and we indulged this, simply because it’s cute to watch my 3 year old behave like a 30 year old…HOWEVER when she does this when we’re out at dinner or when she’s at pre-school then it’s a problem.

    The issue here is – how is she supposed to know what she’s meant to do? When we are accepting her behaviour sometimes and not other times – she’s going to get confused.

    So perhaps this could be an area you could work on? His clinginess (is that a word?) at home should be treated in the same manner as you do at nursery…don’t accept it at home (no matter how cute it is) just like you don’t at nursery…Just an idea!

    I hope that helps? and a massive good luck!!

    1. Thanks for the thoughts Lauren! You’re so right about the consistency thing. It’s definitely something I need to work on. I just feel like I have more time to sit with him at home and reassure him when he’s upset, but when we’re out, that gets difficult.

      Will certainly chat this through with Gav xo

  2. Hiya Naomi,

    Wow that sounds tough-poor you and Ethan. I have a 4.5 yr age gap between my 2 and we also did a big relocation before I became pregnant with no 2. I do think getting their little heads round the whole new sibling thing can be so unsettling and as it’s so hard for them
    To
    Articulate all this it’s often expressed through acting out/clinging/sleep problems etc etc.

    I’m no expert but think your instinct to allow him to express his difficult emotions rather than a reward chart for “keeping them in” is the right thing. Do you listen to or read Janet Lansbury? She really really helped me when i was at your stage of parenting-I think in your case she would advise accepting Ethan’s feelings and trusting that this is a phase/process he needs to go through to process his feelings about all the (positive but still big deals) changes. So she would advise not to ever try to “change it” but to validate him “gosh it’s so hard for you when I have to go To work-you really don’t want me to go”. Then set boundaries-ie leave. I reckon she would also tell you to ensure you were having loads and loads of one on one connection time too (but having no expectation on how that time is used-eg he may want to use it to curl on your lap/test your boundaries etc) so am not sure how your week is structured but I think you said he does every morning at nursery and wondered whether you could steal Some time back from Nursery/grandparents for some special days together before school steals him away every mon-fri! I think 4 yr olds have a lot to get their heads round with the thought of starting school. I So loved this time before school having lazy mornings and days out with my eldest and think Becky wrote on her recently about having time with Leo before he went to school school too.this may not be possible for you and am sure you have lots of lovely time together anyway.
    Lots of luck-there’s a lot of change going on for you so it will be unsettling but the dust will settle in Time and you’ll have a lovely new baby and be settled in your new home too!

    1. You know Cath, I’ve had Janet Lansbury recommended to me a few times. But I’ve never actually followed through with looking her up. I definitely will now though, that approach you’ve suggested sounds right up my street.

      Ethan’s actually only looked after Tues, Weds, Thurs. I have him Fri-Mon. So I make a point of Monday and Friday afternoons especially being Ethan and Mummy days. Thanks so much for the reassuring comment lovely.

      1. I would second Janet Lansbury. My son is only two but have found JL’s approach to things like setting limits and tantrums so useful (and reassuring!). As Cath explained so well, I took from it the importance of acknowledging their feelings and letting them express them but being firm and consistent with boundaries.
        She has some great podcasts. In fact I’ve just seen she has one called ‘our clingy child won’t let us leave’ (about a 5yeat old) – might have some helpful pointers!?
        Wishing you all the best

  3. We moved from London, new pre-school and I was heavily pregnant last year and we found similar to be honest although she was only two at the time. Likewise when we moved again in December she went through a really difficult phase. Change manifests itself differently in each child.

    Don’t take this the wrong way but don’t overthink it. Stickers are a great way of dealing with tricky situations. They have always worked here – instead of toys you could do a special treat just you and him – cinema or a special coffee and cake or something after nursery on a Friday? I don’t think in these circumstances its saying he can’t show negative behaviour at all either – what it is saying is that excessive behaviour isn’t OK. I’m not a big fan of “hand in hand parenting” generally but I know a lot of people that are and its worked for them, particularly where their children are sensitive like Ethan is (as compared with my emotionally challenged three year old who is currently obsessed with watching the bit where Mufassa DIES). Maybe if you do special you and Ethan time then he’ll have a chance to open up about how he feels outside of nursery.

    The other thing is maybe lengthen the days he’s at nursery so he goes for longer but you have less drop offs? Cheats option.

    Having a sibling is always hard and its normal to have some ups and downs. I felt more guilty about that than anything I’ve ever done ever. I felt bad I was neglecting her when I spent 9 months throwing up constantly. Then when he was born I felt bad I wasn’t giving her as much time as before and guilty I wasn’t giving him any time. A very wise person told me (a) these things balance out over time which, 18 months in, is so true and (b) a sibling is the greatest present they will ever get. And its true. No one else but an older sibling will sing sleeping bunnies on repeat for well over an hour whilst the younger sibling attempts to jump. I meanwhile, lay on the sofa. Hashtag winning at parenting.

    The other thing is that having a child and being pregnant is about 500% times harder than having a child and a baby. FOR SURE. Its the damn hormones.

    1. Thank you so much for the comment Rebecca. You’re right about overthinking about it, it’s hard to see these things from an objective view when you’re in them. I’m just taking it day to day and hoping it all pans out.

      As for the Ethan/Mummy time, that’s a good idea for a reward. Unfortunately longer but less nursery days isn’t an option. But I do have him with me Fri-Mon, so there’s plenty of scope for more special one on one time then.

      I remember being told that “along with a child, worry and guilt is born”. And I don’t think there’s a truer saying about parenting!!

  4. Oh Naomi, I feel for you. We have quite a bit of this kind of behaviour in our house too, which started during my pregnancy with Emily who is now 6 months. Zoe is 3 and a half now and, like Ethan, has always been very close to me. She’s struggled a bit with her sister’s arrival and the behaviours you describe are very familiar to me. I haven’t really got any answers but it is starting to pass so I can say that I don’t think it lasts forever! A lot of it could be worry about the baby coming – he might be fine once that stress has passed. I did find that a lot of reassurance and making a big deal of one on one time helps. Good luck! You are definitely not alone, if that is any comfort. 😊 x

    1. I’m so reassured that you say it’s starting to pass. The weird thing is that he’s completely positive about the pregnancy so far, talking to my belly telling baby how much he loves him/her and talking about how he can help. But you never know what’s going on for kids subconsciously I guess. Thanks for the comment. It is actually a huge comfort xo

  5. I really feel for you Naomi, it’s horrible leaving them when they are sad. My little boy used to cry at pre school drop off despite having been fine at nursery. His lovely teacher started letting him help her with sign in pen (the kids sign in on a white board and use the pen to find their name). That really helped as it gave us something positive to talk about on the way to drop, ‘are you going to be the special pen helper today’ etc. After a while he didn’t want to help with the pen just play with his friends. Perhaps there is a special job Ethan can help with when he arrives? And I can see your point about sticker charts but perhaps on days he’s a brave boy at drop off reward him with a little treat? A Freddy frog always works in our house but obviously it doesn’t have to be food related!

    Both of mine love hearing stories about being babies (they are nearly 3 and 4), it seems to be since their baby cousins were born. So perhaps Ethan would like looking through and baby photos and hearing stories? Although I had a small age gap between my two my midwife advised me not to make a big thing of the eldest being a ‘big brother’ as they like to still be your little one too. I know it’s different for everyone and every child but that certainly was good advice for me. x

  6. Hi! My 6.5 year old has progressively been getting worse with her anxiety at drop off, we’ve got it to a much more manageable stage now, but thought I would share a few of our strategies.
    Together we drew a heart, coloured it in & laminated it. She keeps this in her school bag and can get it whenever she feels she needs it, It goes on my bedside table each night to be topped up with mummy love.
    2 – we have an agreed number of kisses and cuddles at drop off!
    3 – naming her emotions and acknowledging them. ‘I can see you are getting upset, and that’s ok” “I can see your getting sad” etc
    4 – books! The invisible string (bedtime story) and the whole brain child. (For you!)

  7. This is such a tough one to deal with, I feel for you! 😞 my little girl went through similar a little while after I had our second baby and I think it was her reaction to the change in our lives, so I completely think it’s likely to be an adjustment period for him – they often have delayed reactions to things I think! I have no real advice, just that it will pass and I would follow your instincts in the meantime to get you through it. You’re his mummy and you know him best, my personal feeling is that it’s not a naughty behaviour to be punished but a big need for reassurance and TLC and it’s definitely hard work and testing for you but I feel that the better their needs are met in this kind of situation the quicker it will pass and the more he’ll be likely to move on from it completely. I think ‘pushing away’ a child who’s craving extra attention only makes it worse in the long term, but that’s just my opinion. Maybe making the time for special trips out together where you really make a fuss of him on your days off and just really making the effort to give him your undivided attention for an hour each day might help (not saying you dont already do that but it is hard, it’s what I tried to do with my daughter and it seemed to help!) I don’t think there’s anything wrong with rewarding a ‘good day’ as long as you’re acknowledging his negative emotions as well, I.e ‘I understand you find it hard when I drop you off at nursery but I know you’ll have so much fun, I’ll miss you lots too and I might have a special treat for you when I pick you up if you can give me a happy smile and wave when we say goodbye’. My daughter recently started doing a longer day at preschool and she was ok about it but the first time I picked her up I brought a treat (chocolate!) with me and made a big fuss about how proud I was of her for being such a big girl etc, she loved it (and now asks if I’ve got a treat every time I pick her up haha) Good luck and I hope it improves for you all soon! X

  8. Ahhh Naomi I’m so sorry this is happening to poor you and poor little chap. These big feelings for small people! Another Janet Lansbury fan here- naming emotions and giving reasons makes so much sense to me- I understand you feel upset and that’s ok but I do need to go to work so we can do x or y with the money I earn? JL’s ideas really helped us when paddy first arrived and S threw some stonking tantrums for a few weeks. I agree with your instincts about the reward chart mind.

    A lady whose little one just started preschool with S had this with her older girl and it’s just her personality- her second child isn’t at all bothered but two terms in the elder still worries. They have worked together with school and found more flexible ways to manage drop off- ie not being left in the playground but going straight into classroom with Mummy and doing special task- reading drawing whatever. Then Mummy leaves when she’s absorbed. Could something like that work?

    You’re not alone- the last couple of days S has been tearful and asking for me about half an hour before pick up so preschool staff have really focused on doing an activity with her through that time- last week they all went for a shape spotting walk through the village and it worked a treat. She’s been super clingy at home, wanting to “rest” on me. It’s just a phase I’m sure….. this too shall pass etc…

  9. Oh god I feel for you, we have been there too and I am pleased to say we are finally coming out of the other side!! My eldest Sofia is 4 and we’ve had two stages of separatation anxiety, the first was while I was pregnant, all of a sudden my great sleeper stopped sleeping, it caused a great deal of stress all round and we had to enlist the help of a sleep therapist (I highly recommend using one if you feel you’ve tried everything.) The second occasion came when the baby was about 6months old. Sofia loves her little sister and is great with her but her arrival has clearly triggered some feelings within her, plus coupled with changing nurseries and upping the days, things went awry. It started with the sleep again, then the hysterical tears started at the nursery drop off. It has been a pretty horrendous time but I feel like we have turned a corner now.

    I’m not sure I have any solid answers or tips I think it was a combination of being persistent with the fact that she has to go to nursery (I am back at work) and talking to her about her feelings more so she can try and articulate them. The nursery staff were a great help too. We have had to work really hard on the sleep techniques and what had previously worked, now didn’t a year on. We have since introduced audio books at bedtime which have been a game changer for getting her to go to sleep without us and now she has finally started to sleep through without us in the room in the night too, we now leave all the doors open. She clearly just wanted to be close and it took a while to find an acceptable way of achieving that, which worked for us.

    Hang in there mama, he will settle down in time, however it is hard to keep perspective while you’re in the thick of it. Good luck with your pregnancy. Xx

  10. I wish I could offer something constructive, but it truly sounds like you’re doing the very best you can – maintaining routine and assuring him that you understand him, and that you love him. From what I know, separation anxiety can actually (over time!) be eased by you leaving him, as when you come and get him, it assures him that you do come back!

    I’m not sure if it’s a little boy thing, too. Lots of lads around the same age in my daughter’s nursery break their poor hearts (and their mums’) on a daily basis at drop-off time. But like all things parent – this too shall pass. Suddenly you’ll realise you’re consumed by another worry and you’ll think ‘huh, it’s ages since I’ve done my nut in, worrying about the nursery drop’.

  11. I could have written this exact post when I was pregnant with number two and my daughter was aged 2. We tried a variety of things, some worked and some didn’t but here they are…
    Getting daddy to drop her off at nursery instead of me
    Giving her a small piece of chocolate on arrival at nursery as a distraction (I never left without her knowing, even though the nursery staff told me to. I didn’t want her to worry that I would just leave without telling her)
    She loves stickers so gets a sticker on her chart at nursery (not as a reward for not crying, more as something to make arriving at nursery a more attractive prospect)
    Telling her I’m away home to do the hoovering, which she hates.
    Spraying her and me with the same perfume just before arriving at nursery so she can ‘smell me’ if she misses me during the day.
    Going to Build a Bear and letting her choose a special nursery bear with a bag. We talked about how nursery bear might be a bit anxious about going and talked about feelings etc. She helped pack a wee bag for nursery bear each morning etc. I also recorded my voice so she can hear it if she presses its hand.
    One of the nursery staff made a big effort to form an attachment with her and always be available for hugs etc was a big help in getting her to settle.
    Good luck! She’s fab with her wee brother now and happily skips into nursery each day so don’t worry, it’ll pass xx

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