Separation Anxiety? Interesting article

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Registered: 05-17-2004
Separation Anxiety? Interesting article
Wed, 04-22-2009 - 10:19am

Because Nicholas has been having a hard time each morning for daycare drop off, I began looking for ways to help him adjust. After reading this article, I might have to start looking for ways to help ME adjust. Just thought I'd share for anyone who has or will experience this.

By Hal Runkel, LMFT

When I give seminars to parents, I always leave some time at the end for questions. One that I seem to get quite often deals with an issue that simply begs me to stand on a soapbox. The question in question deals with separation anxiety. My soapbox deals not with the one asking the question, but rather, the philosophy behind the question itself. So, are you ready for a ScreamFree rant? That may be a contradiction in terms, but this question deserves it. So, here goes:

Separation anxiety is another of my industry's attempts to diagnose an observed set of behaviors in children. And most of these diagnoses, in my minority opinion, are misdirected in their focus and counterproductive in their effect.

Take this one, for instance. Separation anxiety is diagnosed upon any toddler who exhibits consistent crying, whining, or even thrashing when separated from his/her parent. This usually occurs at daycare or preschool, or at the church nursery. Sometimes the child just loses it upon the first 10 minutes after drop-off, sometimes it's happening during the entire time of separation.

This, of course, frustrates and even exasperates the daycare workers, and after they make numerous mentions to the parents, the parents are then exasperated as well. They are usually very quickly at their wit's end, dreading each drop-off for fear of yet another major episode. Some desperate parents even move the child from daycare to daycare, trying to find a situation that will work. The whole mess can leave even the strongest of parents crying out in desperation, wondering aloud if they will ever be able to leave her child without a major ordeal.

It is not surprising, then, that labeling the child with a mental/emotional problem like separation anxiety would come as a relief to all involved. With this label, it becomes a condition within the child that can be addressed, treated, and even "cured." But while that may come as a relief, the effect of this diagnosis is to crystallize all the problems ScreamFree Parenting hopes to address.

In reality, there is no such "thing" as separation anxiety. It is not an objective condition that can be revealed by a blood test or supported by hard data. Separation anxiety is much more subjective than that. It is merely a construct, a creation of many minds seeking to categorize a set of behaviors, namely the crying and thrashing of a child upon drop-off. The number of common minds in agreement, be it childcare workers or scientists or old wives, does not make the construct real. It only makes it commonly heard and used. And of course, the more common, the more used. And then it only feeds on itself to become a factual condition.

Another problem to think about is this: Why do we automatically assume this "condition" is located within the child? Because children don't hide anxiety as well as parents or the daycare employees? As you can probably tell by my tone, I have very little patience for any perspective that always sees child behaviors completely within the psyche of the child and thus, totally out of any larger relational context. Kids don't grow up in a vacuum. What is going on at home, for instance, between the parent and child, between the parents, between the siblings? Who gets most anxious about the child's separation issues, and what does he/she do about it? What happens then? Allow me to paint just one possible context:

Little Johnny's just turned three, and after some deliberation, Mom & Dad decided it was time for him to go to preschool and time for Mom to return to work. Perhaps this was a difficult decision, perhaps it was part of the plan all along. But this shift is a dramatic one for the whole family, to say the least. Johnny's now going to a strange place with strange grownups who are trying to manage a bunch of other strange kids. This is all very overwhelming for the little guy. But that's just one transition.

For Mom & Dad, this transition brings perhaps even more overwhelming adjustments. While Mom stayed at home with Johnny, life eventually got into a comfortable, albeit exhausting, routine. Mom nurtured kids and home. She bought the minivan, slid into the comfy denim overalls, and changed her email address to She tried to quiet herself when doubts about this whole stay-at-home-mom identity arose, because it's what she "always wanted," and it's what she and her husband "always agreed upon." But when she was honest with herself, she really missed working on something other than limiting her toddler's TV time and extending his naps.

Meanwhile, pre-preschool, Dad went to work all day and then came home and played with Johnny. He became adjusted to the tradeoff of his wife becoming Mother first and bride second. He even unknowingly used that to feel justified in his relaxation on the dirty work of house and family, and just concentrate on working hard to provide for it all. And the resentment built on both sides of the fence.

But now all that's changed, because they've decided to start Johnny at preschool. And Mom's staring down the dreaded "first day of work" at a new company. And since her job starts a little later than Dad's, she's the one who's taking Johnny to school in the morning. And, somehow, she ends up picking him up most nights. And despite her protests that she's now working full-time, she's doing just as much housework as before.

And a few weeks into this new lifestyle, little Johnny is still having screaming fits every morning upon drop-off.

So, in all of that complex context, we're going to say that it's obvious that the real issue is that Johnny's got an anxiety problem? We all know kids are sponges of information, language, and attitudes, right? Well, guess what…they are sponges of adult anxiety as well. But instead of examining all these contextual issues, and they are admittedly complex, we find it easier to affix an emotional disorder label on a toddler.

Here's my advice: please don't. I do not know your particular situation, and it may be nothing like the one I've described above, but regardless, please don't label your toddler with an adjustment problem, or an anxiety issue. How we think about and define a problem is usually the biggest part of that problem. And how we then try to fix it just usually makes it worse.

Instead, take a pause. Pause and begin to investigate the entire relational context around the issue. Your toddler is struggling with the separation involved in daycare. OK, pause. Take a breath. Talk to the daycare and get all the facts from several sources. Then ask them a very important, yet difficult question: Ask them how they think you're doing. They see all types of parents and guardians dropping off kids, and they can usually point out in the parking lot which kids are going to struggle the most, just based on the parents' body language. Next ask your spouse how he/she thinks you're doing. Ask them to be honest.

Finally, ask yourself how you're doing. Are you behaving in the mornings the way you'd like to behave? The pros at drop-off are those who get up early enough to have a peaceful morning routine. They are those who never get riled or upset by their child's protest because they see such protests just as a child's way of testing their parents, making sure that the parent is committed to this structure. If the parent wavers at all, usually because of all the internal conflict about the surrounding relational context, then the child then feels unsafe. If the child feels unsafe, then of course they're going to be anxious.

The greatest thing we can do for our kids is learn to focus on ourselves, putting ourselves in the calmest position to lead our kids into life. And of course, even if only on occasion, that includes dropping them off into the care of others. The more comfortable you are with that idea and experience, the more comfortable your kids will become with others. It really is that simple.

Now, excuse me while I step down from my soapbox. The air is getting a little thin.

Andrea-Fall08.jpg picture by MarieM414

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Registered: 04-06-2007
Wed, 04-22-2009 - 9:08pm
That is so interesting - I can't say that I disagree in theory. I haven't had to drop Sara off for more then a day at her Oma's house before and that is always fun for her so I haven't seen this full force - For Nick I would say that this change is a HUGE one for you and him - so maybe it will take some more time for both of you to get used to the idea and the concept. I know feeling comfortable and BEING comfortable are two different things so give yourself a break and just go from there.

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Registered: 05-17-2004
Fri, 04-24-2009 - 9:36am

Hi Caren,

I totally agree that the child's personality has to be a part of the equation on this. There are some kids that can simply "go with the flow," while others are a little more high strung and need a little more support to get through stuff like separation from parents. It is definitely in the child's nature - one way or the other.

However, having said that...Nicholas has really never been very high strung and had, up to the point of daycare enrollment, pretty much gone with the flow in most situations. So, when he started freaking out every morning when we'd drop him off at daycare, I immediately thought, "he must be having separation anxiety."

So in researching how to deal with it, I found the article I posted which made me start thinking. Nick had never really been left in the care of anyone other than my mom. He had gotten into a routine and knew exactly what to expect every morning when he woke up. BUT, what is more is, MAMA had gotten into a routine as well. I had our morning routine down to an exact science. We did the same thing every.single.morning. (just like you said!)

Then, all of a sudden (like overnight) we BOTH had to change our routine. We BOTH had to restructure our morning. Honestly, this caused MAMA to freak out! And, it wasn't until I read the article I posted that I realized he could be having "issues" because I'M helping to make him uptight by being uptight myself.

For the last couple of days, I have been really making an effort to be more relaxed in the mornings. I have been laying out all of our stuff the night before which was a big stressor for me (I'd gotten out of the habit of doing this because my mornings were so routine). I've also been trying to get myself as ready as possible mentally to drop him off into the care of someone other than my mom, something else I have been struggling with.

And guess what. The last two mornings he has not freaked out when we've dropped him off. So, it just proved to me that I did have a lot to do with how his mornings were going. Now that I am more relaxed, he's more relaxed.

I'm not blaming all of it on me, but I am taking blame for at least a big portion of it. He still had to go into a new situation, with new surroundings, and new kids and new adults to listen to. All of that I'm sure played a huge role. But, it certainly didn't help when Mama was wound up as tight as a drum by 7:15 each morning because she couldn't handle the stresses of "change" herself! :-)

Andrea-Fall08.jpg picture by MarieM414

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Registered: 05-17-2004
Fri, 04-24-2009 - 9:59am
Thank you for trying to ease my Mom Guilt - I didn't even realize that came through in my post! Although I try not to blame myself for stuff I guess it comes with the territory! ;-)

Andrea-Fall08.jpg picture by MarieM414