As parents, we are all familiar with separation anxiety and know how tricky it can sometimes be to navigate our lives with a baby or toddler's strong feelings about us leaving. Although it gets easier as they grow, separations can still be challenging in older children.
But what happens when a parent's own separation fears get added into the mix? Our close bonds with our children can sometimes make it hard to meet our own needs for freedom, adventure and following our dreams.
Last year, I had an opportunity to study therapeutic writing—something I'd always been passionate about. The course involved traveling away from home for one weekend a month. My first thought was that it was too much time to spend away from my daughter. Then I thought about it again. Two days? Was it really that much?
I asked my 6-year-old daughter if she would mind me going away and she was fine with the idea. I also asked some parent friends if they felt that being away once a month would be too much. They all thought it was absolutely fine too.
So what was the problem?
I became aware that I was terrified being away from her too much would "break" our connection. I'd always prided myself on being a connected parent, and even my decision to train as a Hand in Hand Parenting instructor was partly motivated by separation anxiety—the thought that if I didn't parent well enough then my daughter would want to have nothing to do with me as an adult.
Adults get separation anxiety too and when we are dealing with our child's separation it can be helpful to look at how our own feelings come into play. If we are nervous and anxious about a separation, then it can make it harder for our child to feel safe to say goodbye.
Here are three ways parents can deal with their own separation anxiety:
1. Address your fears
In my role at Hand in Hand Parenting, we teach parents of young children the importance of having a ''long goodbye.'' Rather than rushing off and leaving a child with another caregiver, or at daycare, we approach things differently. We recommend that parents stay with their children, as long as they are upset so they can work through their fears and express them while you listen and stay close.
Adults also need this kind of support to work through feelings, not with the child themselves, but with another adult. This could be a partner, friend or trained counselor or listener.
What are you most afraid of? The first step to letting go of fear is to shine a light on them, to become aware of what your fears are telling you.
Write them down, or talk to an understanding friend. No matter how silly or irrational they may be, giving space to talk them through can help you to let them go.
2. Create a listening partnership
A "listening partnership" scheme is where parents learn how to listen to each other, and this is a powerful way to let go of worries and fears so they don't cloud your thinking.
Listening partnerships are an exchange that goes much deeper than everyday conversation. They allow you space to fully explore your feelings without being interrupted or given advice. This powerful practice allows you to follow where your mind takes you, and often your mind has a way of figuring things out and solving problems when you have the emotional support of another person to help guide you along the way.
You might find yourself having a good laugh or cry, and this physical release of feelings is key to lightening your emotional load and seeing things more clearly.
3. Focus on being present + address past experiences
One mother I spoke to found it hard to separate from her daughter because she'd had three miscarriages before her birth and was always anxious that something might happen to her. Another mother had a parent who worked overseas when she was young and the loss she had felt made her extremely conscious to emphasize connection with her own son.
Of course, we want to do the best for our children and learn by what didn't work so well for us when we were young. However, many of us find ourselves overcompensating for hurts we experienced in our own childhood.
Our parenting becomes an unconscious attempt to fill the own gaps, and holes in our own past experiences. We project our past pain onto the present and may lose perspective on what's really going on.
Healing our past hurts is vital to see the present for what it really is, and make decisions on when to separate from our child that make sense for what's really going on in the here and now.
If you find yourself feeling overly anxious about separating from your child it's worth asking yourself where did these feelings come from? Are they related to childhood experiences of not having enough close connection? Or are they related to early experience in your child's life, that have left you with anxiety?
Our anxiety can be affected by things that happened many years ago or something that happened just the other week. Giving these feelings attention, with the support of a listener or therapist can help you let go of them.
I did go and take the writing course, and I found that somehow my daughter and I actually became more closely connected through the experience. My daughter was taken care of by our village while I was away, and I got to follow my dreams.
Perhaps it was that we both spread our wings and faced our anxiety about the separation that allowed us to find a deeper sense of connection that lay beyond our fears.