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Dealing with Separation Anxiety: What to Do When Your Child Won’t Let You Go

Techniques to pry them off, from a parent who's been there.

A kiss and a hug. That's the typical goodbye at Pre-K drop-off.

Not for me.

If I can make a clean getaway with eleven kisses, nine hugs, and three air-kisses blown at the door, it's a banner day. When my daughter added "air hugs" to the recipe for Prolonged Goodbyes, I knew we had a problem. 

"I don't even know what an air hug is, honey," I protested, "and Mommy has to go to work."

"But I don't want you to go to work," she whimpered, her gray-blue eyes filling with tears.

"So sweet," cooed another mom who, I noted with envy, had been relinquished with nary a peep.

I could see what she meant, though "sweet" isn't the first word I'd use to describe separation anxiety. I'd probably opt for "difficult," or "stressful," or maybe just "exhausting." Because while I love hugs and kisses in excessive quantities, I prefer them to be delivered without the wild panic in the eyes, without the vise-like grip on my neck. First and foremost, I want my kids to be safe, and that part’s covered. But I want them to feel safe, too, and that part’s a little trickier.

My 5-year-old can’t articulate a specific fear. She just knows she wants me to stay. So, I’ve tried staying for a little while, to get her comfortable. But the longer I stay, the less comfortable she becomes. Rather than satisfying her need, my lingering intensifies it—and makes me late for work to boot.

My daughter’s drop-off anxiety has several stages:

  1. Denial: “You’re not leaving.”
  2. Bargaining: “Just read A short book and then you can go.”
  3. More Bargaining: “Just one more book, I promise.”
  4. Anger: “No! You can’t go! I won’t let you!”
  5. Physical Blockade: “I’m blocking the door. You can’t get past.”
  6. Pleading: “Please, Mommy, please don’t leave me. Pleeeeeeease?”
  7. And finally, tears. Lots of tears.

There is also clinging. Except that “clinging” is too gentle a word for the attachment. Saran wrap clings. Static-ridden skirts cling. My daughter clutches. She grabs. She holds on for dear life. Her tiny yet freakishly strong fingers grip my arms, my leg, my clothes. When my daughter gets her grip on, it takes a kind and patient teacher to pry her off, and hold her as I sprint out the door. Woe to those parents who stand in the doorway, making small talk and obstructing my path.

The thing is, it’s not my first time at this particular rodeo. My pre-kindergartener is my third child, and while each of my kids are incredibly dissimilar, in this respect they’ve been alike. My older kids, now in 7th and 4th grade, don’t still cling to my arm when it’s time for school but they did —well into elementary school

When this happened for the first time with my oldest, my son, the teachers at his pre-K instructed me to stay cheerful and upbeat.

“He’ll take his cue off of you,” they insisted.

I could have won an Oscar for my performance at those drop-offs. I plastered a broad, unwavering smile on my face and sang out, “Have a great day!” as my son choked on tears and yelled, “No! Don’t leave! Mooooommy!” while pressing his hands to the glass of the “goodbye window” like a tiny inmate.

The one upside of having been through separation anxiety with each of my children is after extensive research, I know what to do. Or, I should say, I know what to try. I know to keep trying until something works. And when that stops working, I know to try something new.

These strategies are life rafts bobbing in a sea made turbulent, whether from separation anxiety, social troubles, learning challenges or other forces. The strategies don’t pull you out of the rough waters, but they keep your head above the surface.

For my pre-Kindergartener at drop off, our go-to techniques are mostly attempts to make the separation feel less drastic and to give her choices so she feels more in control. Sometimes it’s me writing her a note which she can clutch in lieu of my neck, something she can read just after I’ve gone. Sometimes it’s her sitting with a teacher after I’ve left, and writing a note to give me when I see her soon. Sometimes it’s me waving another goodbye into the video monitor mounted in front of her school exit, on my way out.

And sometimes none of these carefully-crafted, expert-approved, ingenious ideas work. Sometimes, no amount of kisses and hugs and air kisses and notes will console her. And then there are tears—mostly hers, but occasionally mine, though mine are only shed after we’ve parted.

And on those days, I tell her, and myself, “We’ll try again tomorrow.” And we do.

Written by Nicole C. Kear for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.


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