Can parents have separation anxiety, too? (Spoiler: yes)

Anyone else out there struggling with separation while their kids are at school during the pandemic? ✋

can parents have separation anxiety
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Back in March, I, like countless others, became a stay-at-home parent and early child educator overnight. I suddenly found myself overseeing my young sons' every move. The last time I'd had that kind of time with them, and that degree of control over their lives, was during my two maternity leaves.

When I learned that I was among the lucky parents whose schools would be open for in-person instruction, I nearly wept with gratitude. Of course, I was nervous to send my kids out into the world during a pandemic. But for the most part, I couldn't wait to drop them off and do a victory dance with my fellow beleaguered parents.

My sons have been in school for a few weeks now, and while I remain acutely aware of how fortunate I am that they're attending in person, I'm not dancing like I expected I would be. In fact, I'm experiencing my own separation issues.

When my sons leave in the morning, I feel unsettled and twitchy. I try to focus on work but my mind drifts to what my kids might be doing and whether they're being safe, knowing that I have zero control over this.


This happened when my sons entered day care after my maternity leaves, too; I was distracted by thoughts of my sons' eating and napping and frustrated that I no longer had sole control over these things. But at least then I could count on the detailed daily reports from day care. Now, when I repeatedly ask my sons "how was your day?" I get nothing. Yesterday, for example, all I heard was a story about my son and his friends finding a bottle of "beer" (later revealed to be a Red Bull) on the ground.

As a clinical psychologist who works with stressed and anxious parents, I've been thinking a lot about parent separation issues, and particularly about the impact that this separation will have on parents whose kids are still learning from home. If I'm feeling this way, and my kids were out of school for 6 months, how much worse will it be for the parents whose kids will have been home for 9 months or a year?

In considering how I might help these parents, it occurred to me that strategies for helping kids who have difficulty separating from their parents could be adapted to help parents who have difficulty separating from their kids. I consulted an expert child psychologist and author of The Tantrum Survival Guide, Dr. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, to pick her brain about what she does to help kids with separation issues. Armed with her strategies, I then translated them for the adults I treat (and, let's face it, for myself).

If you're having difficulty with separation from your kids during the pandemic, here's what to try.

1. Use mindfulness to manage separation worries.

Dr. Hershberg encourages worried kids to practice mindfulness. She shares, "I tell kids that anxiety is so uncomfortable that it fools you into thinking that you have to get rid of it. But actually, the best way to make it go away is just to mindfully ride it out, like a wave on the ocean. Remember that anxiety is just a feeling that is going to pass."

Adult translation: Use mindfulness to accept your worries and lack of control. We need to accept that we're going to be worried about our kids at school, and that we have little control over what happens while they're there. Approaching our worries mindfully—just letting them wash over us, like waves—is the best way to manage them. If we're frantically trying to control our anxiety and/or our kids' experiences, we're just going to end up more worried and frustrated.

2. Recognize that your kids take their cues from you.

According to Dr. Hershberg, kids with separation worries take their cues from their parents. Which means, she explains, that "parents need to communicate to their kids that they are safe. This can be explicitly stated, of course, but also has to be conveyed via an overall calm and confidence, as reflected in non-verbal cues, such as tone of voice and body posture."

Adult translation: Take your cues from your kids. Observe not only what your kids are telling you (or, in my case, not telling you) about school but also your kids' overall energy and demeanor. If your kids are seeming excited and energized each morning, take this as a cue that they're feeling safe and comfortable at school.

3. Highlight your connection, even when you're apart.

Dr. Hershberg encourages parents to emphasize their connection to their kids, by doing things like leaving notes in their snack bags or sharing a memento they can carry with them. She also recommends "twinning," where the parent and kid wear the same color shirt, for example, or sport matching Star Wars tattoos.

Adult translation: Do what you can to highlight your connection to your kids. I was skeptical that this would help adults, so I decided to try it. One morning, my sons and I all left the house in t-shirts from my niece's college. I also attached lanyards my boys made to my handbag. These actions inspired feelings of love and warmth, which were a welcome antidote to the anxiety I'd been feeling.

4. Remember that their strong feelings don't have to be your strong feelings.

Dr. Hershberg urges parents to separate themselves from their kids' worries. If your kids are suffering, Dr. Hershberg notes, that doesn't mean you have to suffer, too—that is, adding your own suffering to the mix isn't the best way to help the situation.

Adult translation: Remember that our worries are not our kids' worries. I can relate this to my fears about my kids and masks. I was worried that my kids would be terrified to witness their friends and teachers in masks and face shields. But they've had absolutely zero issues with it. Clearly, my anxiety is not their anxiety.

5. Watch out for reassurance-seeking.

According to Dr. Hershberg, kids who worry about separation often repeatedly seek reassurance that their parents will be okay (for example, asking, "Mommy, are you going to die?"). But, as Dr. Hershberg points out, reassurance-seeking is ineffective: "You think it will help, but it just leaves you wanting more." Dr. Hershberg urges parents to eschew reassuring in favor of validating and encouraging. This means saying something like, "I can see you're having a hard time with that feeling, and I know you can handle the feeling."

Adult translation: Stop pumping your kids for information. I have to quit repeatedly asking my kids about their days. Aside from not being effective from an anxiety management standpoint, my kids find it annoying. Instead, I have to remind myself that I can handle my feelings of anxiety about my kids in school (after all, I already did it successfully when they were in day care).

Bottom line: If you, like me, are surprised by how hard it has been to send your kids back to school (especially given how much you wanted them to go back), try treating yourself as you'd treat your kids if they were struggling with separation. Show yourself some compassion and try to remain mindful. And of course, don't forget your Star Wars tattoo.

This post was first published on Psychology Today.

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