By Katie Newton, PhD, LP
In my practice, I often work with children and families who are struggling with the challenges of separation anxiety. Most people think about separation anxiety with the image of a screaming preschooler whose childcare provider is having to hold them while their parent is trying to get to work. In these images, people may think about the annoyance or frustration that this can cause for the adults in the situation, causing them to be late for work or have to “deal” with the screaming child every morning. But when it happened to me, I realized that it is actually much more than a daily annoyance; it can be quite an emotional and painful experience for parents.
Separation anxiety is actually something that can impact children of any age. As kids get older, it can come in the form of fears that something bad might happen to their parents while they are apart, and can contribute to worries or panic throughout the school day or frequent reassurance-seeking in the form of texting or calling parents to make sure they are ok. For my daughter, it happened when she was 6 during a summer program.
Each morning, I came to dread the morning drop off, not because I was annoyed or frustrated, but because I started to question everything. Was there something bad happening to her at the summer program? Would I be a better parent if I took time off in the summer to take care of my kids instead of working? Was I sending my daughter the message that I didn’t care about or understand her anxiety?
Each morning, I noticed my own panic sensations starting to escalate as we got ready to leave the house and head to the summer program. In the car, I would start to think about how she would cry when it was time to say goodbye and beg me not to leave. I could picture the fear on her face and body and it would trigger my own racing heart, sweating, and urge to cry. I felt that I was fighting every parental instinct in my body to leave her in that situation. And, then, I had to go to work. I had to transition to being present and thoughtful for other children and families, all the while worrying about my own child and whether I had done the right thing. It was rough.
Sometimes my clients find it surprising to know that we therapists also have therapists, but, we do! In talking with my therapist about what was happening, she helped me to see that this was not just about my daughter’s emotions. My own thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations were also being affected. In our work together, she helped me to identify the thoughts and questions that were appearing before and during these moments in order to begin to challenge or disconnect from them. She also gave me some tools to begin to tune into my body differently so that I might have a more effective transition between drop-off and work. Once I returned to my car after saying goodbye, I would hold a stone paper weight and notice how it felt in my hands, smell an aromatherapy oil that was soothing to me, and take several long, slow breaths. I would notice how my body felt tense and shaky and would observe those sensations until they dissipated into calm.
These tools, which come from various therapeutic styles, were rooted in the ideas of mindfulness. I sometimes talk with clients about the concept of “getting out of your head and into your body.” The mind can be a challenging place, especially as it relates to emotions and fear. There is a lot of uncertainty and questions that cannot be answered in the mind, but the body is a bit easier. We can feel our hand on our chest or belly. We can feel our feet on the floor. We can observe whether our jaw is tense or if our shoulders are slouched. Focusing on these things can give us an increased sense of control in situations that feel out of control. It can actually make us feel stronger and more powerful.
That was a tough summer for my daughter, but also for me. Eventually, we were able to develop a different routine at drop-off where a trusted teacher would walk with she and I to the glass door and she could watch me get in my car and drive to work. She would then go and pick a prize before returning to class. This routine seemed to give her a sense of predictability that was helpful (and I’m sure the treats didn’t hurt!). But, I’m also wondering if I was somehow able to communicate an increased sense of control and calm that was helpful to her, knowing that even if my anxiety and discomfort escalated, I could re-center myself back into a place of being ok.
Katie Newton, PhD, LP
Dr. Newton provides outpatient therapy services to children and adolescents through her private practice, Newton Psychological Services. Her office is located in the Oak Hill Psychology Center in St Louis Park, MN. Dr. Newton specializes in working with clients who are struggling with anxiety or ADHD, but also enjoys helping children and families with other broad emotional, social, or behavioral concerns. Her favorite group of clients are those between the ages of 8 and 13 – yes, middle school! Dr. Newton also enjoys spending time with her husband and children, reading, and being outside (when the Minnesota weather cooperates!).