being a mom

My Nearly Five-Year-Old Still Has Separation Anxiety And It’s Making Me A Wreck

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shutterstock_142995187The baby books told me that the height of separation anxiety would occur between 10-18 months, yet here I am years later still dealing with this behavior.  I don’t know what someone would call it now — separation anxiety or a “clingy kid” —  but my son is going to be five years old before spring has sprung and managing it feels like daily torture on a physical, emotional and mental level.

It’s hard to pinpoint my son’s anxiety.  I have alternated a year working at home and a year working out of the house in an office pretty much since he was born.  I have always given him plenty of notice and explanation of what is going on and what he can expect.  On a daily basis, I tell him when he will be picked up specifically, “after afternoon snack” and we talk about anything unusual coming up — like travel or holidays — well in advance.

These days, as he approaches the age of five, most of his anxiety revolves around school.  I wish I could say it was “only” school — which it is — but school comes five days a week month after month.  Some days he cries as I hug him and he falls in a heap as I walk out the door.  Some days he does his best sloth impression, grabbing whatever he can — my hand, my leg, my coat — and digs his fingers in until I’m pleading the teachers with my eyes to come up with something to distract or engage him.  Other days he begins his strike before we’ve even left the house.  He flat out refuses to get dressed or put his coat and shoes on.

Professionals reassure that separation anxiety or generally clingy behavior is totally normal — in toddlers.  But at what age should I expect to be able to go to work after dropping my son off at school without claw marks on my arms from the teachers having to pry him off of me?

It’s pretty devastating to experience on a daily basis.  I know in my rational brain that he’s fine and that he doesn’t cry hysterically all day long, but it’s hard on me emotionally.  I hate being gone at work for so many hours and I hate not being able to pick him up or drop him off every day.  I’m usually feeling the pressure of being late AGAIN (because he went on shoe strike before we left and it’s taken me an extra 10 minutes to pry him off of me) or even just strung out by my overwhelming responsibilities at work.  The situation does far more than tug at my heart-strings, it stresses me out to the point where I want to scream, cry or do both.

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His number one complaint is that school is boring.  It’s pretty shocking for me to hear that in his Pre-K class, kids are expected to “rest” for two hours.  I’m sure this is normal for an educator, but let me assure you, my son hasn’t rested for two hours during the day since the day he was born!  He was always a short napper and dropped naps altogether before the age of three.  Now he’s almost five and being asked to lay down for two hours in the middle of his day.  While there’s nothing I can do about this (not that I would even if I “could”) it does give me hope for next year. With nap or rest time gone in Kindergarten, I’m hoping he won’t think school is so boring and the separation anxiety might let up.  Otherwise I better get my prescription for a little R&R.

(photo: racorn/Shutterstock)

13 Comments

  1. Hana Graham

    January 14, 2014 at 8:21 am

    I’m useless for advice here. I saw the title and was like “Ohhh my cat had separation anxiety, maybe I can help somehow.” But cats don’t have to go to school. I am zero help 🙁

  2. MerlePerle

    January 14, 2014 at 8:26 am

    It sounds like you’re doing everything you can. We also made it a point to never sneak out and tell our daughter well in advance if she’s staying at grandma’s etc, so I really don’t have any advice 🙁
    But I find it very odd that 5 year olds would be required to rest. My daughter (who’s turning five in August) hasn’t napped since she was 2. in her daycare, the kids who didn’t nap anymore were told to play quietly (coloring, puzzles) and that worked well for her. I can’t imagine making her lie down when she isn’t even tired!

    • G.E. Phillips

      January 14, 2014 at 9:04 am

      I agree completely about the nap thing, it drives me nuts! (And I say this as someone who taught full-time daycare/preschool for several years.) Face doesn’t nap on the weekends, we run around all day long, and he generally passes out before nine. But Monday-Friday, he sleeps for an hour or so at school (they don’t offer a “quiet play” option so I think he falls asleep out of boredom,) and then he’s jumping on my bed yelling about “Samurai Power!” until after 10pm most nights. I can’t WAIT for (no-nap) Kindergarten.

  3. Holly

    January 14, 2014 at 8:59 am

    My own kids have always been very independent and have never looked back when I leave them at school. I do have a lot of experience with this since I work with Kindergarteners. Even though the school year is quickly approaching the half way point, sometimes the little munchkins don’t want to let go of mom. I’ve found that the best thing for parents to do is just to kiss them goodbye, tell them that they’ll be together again after school, and let us deal with the crying. As a parent I’m sure it’s very painful to watch, but lingering just makes it worse.

    • C.J.

      January 14, 2014 at 11:06 am

      Had to do that with my younger one, it broke my heart but it worked. She stopped crying after a few days when she realized we were always going to come back and get her. We talked to her about it too.

  4. Kate

    January 14, 2014 at 9:22 am

    So sorry you are going through this! As a child psychologist and mom of a child who has gone in and out of these separation anxiety phases, I can assure you that you are doing your best. A couple of ideas. First, I was able to talk to my son’s preschool and arrange for him to do another “quiet activity” (craft) during rest time. He was bored and disruptive and it was a problem for everybody. If they are amenable to something like that, perhaps that would take away the boredom piece. In terms of your son, he sounds like he has a more sensitive temperament so he will probably never be the kid who runs into school excitedly, barely looking in your direction. So in some ways you have to embrace who he is and adjust expectations a bit, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t help him with his upset feelings. Have you tried a sticker/reward chart to help jumpstart more appropriate “goodbye” behavior? Tell him “it’s ok to feel sad/miss mommy, etc but we need to try to say a nice goodbye” (outline exactly whatever that entails behaviorally: no clinging, hug/kiss and wave, etc). Each day he earns a sticker if he accomplishes the “nice goodbye,” and X number of stickers earns him a special treat (this could be special time w/ mommy doing a favorite activity/outing or whatever. I try to shy away from food rewards and toys but sometimes they do work up front to get the behavior moving along, and then you can switch the treat). Up front, he shouldn’t have to work too hard to earn the special treat (e.g. maybe he only needs 2 stickers to get a special playground date with mom). But as he gets used to it, you can challenge him to earn 3 stickers before the treat, then 4, etc. Get some awesome stickers (my son loves Ninjago and superheroes so these are motivating in and of themselves – he loves to put them on his chart and count them!). The important thing is to ALWAYS validate his feelings so he feels heard/understood, but set clear expectations for behavior. You are teaching coping, basically. This is not easy! As a professional I doled out this advice for years and now having to do it with my son – it takes on a new twist! SO much harder in practice! But do your best. If it persists, of course you could always consult with a professional but give this a whirl if you want! Best of luck!! xo

  5. Lackadaisical

    January 14, 2014 at 9:55 am

    I know it doesn’t help right now with dropping your kid off at school, but your kid isn’t the only child who had anxieties like that at that age, and they do grow out of it. I was a teaching assistant in a reception class (4-5) and now am in a year 1 class (5-6) and a lot of healthy normal kids went through separation anxiety but where perfectly normal, healthy kids who were perfectly happy when they got over the evil drop off. Their very stressed parents would sympathise with you. We don’t see it so much with the 5-6 year old kids but I have certainly seen a couple of cases in the Beaver scouts group I run (6&7) that the kids grew out of. It takes as long as it takes, but there is nothing wrong with you or your kid.

  6. Alfreda Wells Morrissey

    January 14, 2014 at 10:03 am

    That sounds so hard. I used to have that problem with my youngest up until early four, when I would drop her off at daycare. Usually her father drops her off and apparently she separates fine with him. It is gut wrenching. I am stressing about it all day at work and yet she is fine all day at daycare.

    The 2 hour nap was always a problem for us at daycare, but it was only 15 min at kindergarten. My oldest struggled with this even so. Now that she is in grade one and there is no nap, she doesn’t get in trouble any more. Is it a pre-school your child is in? Did he turn 5 just after the cut?

    The only thing I can suggest to help with the separation anxiety is this. Do some role playing at home. Pretend separation and allow him to cry and rage if it triggers this. Make sure to have one-on-one special time when you get home to connect. Even 5 minutes where he gets your full attention. If at all possible, try this in the morning too. I found this helped with my daughter and it made her get ready faster. Wake up 5 minutes earlier. Right on waking tell her she has 5 minutes to play with you, and give her your full attention for 5 minutes. Set a timer. I explained that this would mean we really need to get ready when it is time to get ready, rather than play. It actually worked.

    If you can pad extra time, start preparing for the separation in the car. If he cries all the way there, this is good because he is getting out some of his fears about separating while you are listening and not trying to disengage. It is really hard to deal with you are trying to leave and be on time for work, but in the car that is just dead time anyway. The key is that the more he cries and rages about separating, eventually he will get all the fears and bad stuff out, eventually he will be able to separate without crying and clinging.

    You could also work on the separating at bedtime. Rather staying with him so long, put him in bed after the ‘routine’. The routine should have a clear end point. Then announce you are going to leave. If he cries stop and wait. Once he stops crying at that point, then keep moving towards the door until you are outside the room and see if that gets him to cry then stop and wait till he is done crying. If you need to stop because you can’t take any more, then go and lay down with him and tell him, “I can’t listen anymore tonight we will work on the rest tomorrow night”. Hopefully after listening with empathy, he will feel more secure in your connection so he can hold on to it even when you are not in the same room with him.

    He may have not had as much time to work on these fears since you have been home with him off and on. I am sure the kids that are home full time until kindergarten would have a lot of separation anxiety too so I am sure he is not the only one. When I started kindergarten, I was terrified because my mom never left me babysitters and was a stay at home mom. In fact, in my hometown most of the mother’s were home so it was not out of the norm back then. Now that most mother’s work it feels more unusual because by the time they get to kindergarten they are really used to the idea that we are apart all day long. 10-18 months is when most kids start daycare now. My kindergarten was half day because it was practice separating from mom. Since the mom’s didn’t work this was not a big deal. Now we have full day kindergarten because half day is impractical for working mother’s.

    You and your son are so lucky to have had those years where you worked at home. It sounds like you used that time to build a very strong connection with your son. It is very good for children to have that time and there will be huge benefits since you were able to do that. Unfortunately it may make it harder to separate later. I think this is normal, and all kids will go through it. It does not last forever, and you will get through it.

    Here is a website with some tips on separation anxiety.
    http://www.handinhandparenting.org/article/separation-anxiety-recovery/

    Good luck

  7. Kay_Sue

    January 14, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Have you talked to his guidance counsellor or school psychologist? At this age, they have a wealth of information on parenting that can be really, really helpful, especially since so much parenting advice for these things gets muddled as they get older. They could also be an ally within the school itself when you can’t be there, and maybe ease his transition to K5 next year.

    Good luck!

  8. AP

    January 14, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    I think you should work with the teacher to see what changes they can make at school to help him feel more comfortable there. When I was little, I’d get what looked like “separation anxiety” on the outside (it looked like I wanted to stay with Mom) but was really I wanted to stay AWAY from whatever bully/abusive teacher/rotten school situation I was being placed into. Mom could protect me, but other adults often wouldn’t.

    If there’s nothing that can be done, it might mean it’s time to find another arrangement until Kindergarten starts. I know it might be hard to find something, but he’s telling you that there’s something seriously wrong at this school. An investigation is merited.

  9. MEE

    January 14, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    This was my first kid until the 2nd grade. No advice. I felt like a failure and then one day he literally grew out of it. Now I have to drop him off at school on the curb so as not to embarrass him.

  10. Jallun-Keatres

    January 14, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    First day of third grade, new school. Mom told me to meet her in my older sister’s classroom after school (it was out of district so she picked us up instead of taking a bus home). I get there and the classroom is DESERTED. I flip the eff out. Cue two years of extreme separation anxiety.

    Being 8, I remember how it felt and although the only advice I have is give it time (which is not helpful) I can say I feel for you. 🙁

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