Separation Anxiety: When Your Child Misses You All the Time

My six-year-old daughter has suddenly developed an extremely strong attachment to me. Every time we are separated, she cries. She never had a problem with separation before, now she even gets upset leaving me for school in the. I've been much busier the last few weeks but I am a stay-at-home Mom and I'm always there for her. What can I do?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

It is clear that your daughter is able to achieve the goals you want for her when pressured, but she is experiencing a lack of confidence in approaching challenges independently. Some children are simply slower to adapt to new situations than others and require more connection in order to master certain challenges. Focus on answering her emotional needs in order to help your child develop true independence based on inner security rather than external pressures. You might want to consider a consult with your pediatrician to rule out any physical problems.

While it is true that your daughter may be more clingy in response to greater separation from you, she may also be experiencing adjustments at school that are significant for her. If she is beginning first grade, or even attending a new classroom, she is adapting to new situations. These adjustments in addition to your increased time away from her could exacerbate her fearfulness. What are the changes in her life? What are her feelings about other significant figures in her daily life? You may need to develop a stronger "relationship bridge" with her, which will serve to increase her sense of security when you are not there.

Create this "relationship bridge" by checking with teachers and daycare providers about her experience during the day. Is she having any social difficulties? Are there any academic challenges that she needs extra help integrating? It may be that due to your busier schedule, you have had less time to notice the nuances of her daily life outside of the home. She may feel a loss of connection with you, because in fact you may not know as much about her life as before. By increasing contact with your daughter's caregivers and teachers, you will stay connected to her daily life and will be better informed of any extra support she may need from you. This kind of knowledge will affect the quality of your relationship with your child.

Though you may not be able to provide for her every need, you may coordinate others to assist her with activities (reading, for example, if this were an issue). Your daughter will feel your presence and caring through the support network you set up for her. You will be more in touch with her daily life and this will be soothing to both of you.

Your daughter may also benefit from having a special time for sharing the activities of her day with you on a regular basis. Spend daily time talking about her day, including her fears that have come up. By telling you all that happened, she will likely be able to internalize your presence and love during her day. For example, she may begin to have thoughts about you when something enjoyable happens, because she knows she will share it with you at the end of the day.

Likewise, when anxiety arises, she will naturally look forward to telling you about it and getting help. It is this quality of connection between the two of you that she needs in order to feel strong enough to take on challenges. Fortify your rapport with her during this transition period. You will also feel more secure about her when you are certain that you are in touch with the smaller as well as larger, events in her day.

Finally, pay attention to any clues that some particular event has resulted in her becoming more needy for you. Has any trauma occurred in your absence, or an event that might seem small to you, but was a very big deal for her? For example, sensitive children will sometimes experience deep insecurity when things change. Forgetting to put her usual apple in her lunch might have been interpreted as forgetting her instead of the apple.

It is very possible that the two of you are merely working through your daughter's "optimal frustration", a term used by child psychologist D.W. Winicott to describe experiences that help a child build character. The key is that the difficulty the child is expected to master is a manageable, rather than an overwhelming hardship. It is true that children need some naturally occurring experiences of frustration to work through with their parents. And usually, life is resplendent with just such opportunities. Refer to my article "What is Good Enough Parenting?" on the Making Healthy Families series for further discussion of the value of "optimal frustration" in child development.

Given your support, your daughter will no doubt gain strength and mastery of these new situations over time. But rest assured that she is fortunate to have a mother with the clarity of intent that you have to help her. Your obvious love and conscientious good intentions will inevitably facilitate her adaptation to new situations.

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