Overcoming Separation Anxiety on the First Day of School

I am sitting in my car outside Bean’s Kindergarten and I am crying. Ugly crying: my eyes are swollen shut and red; my body is convulsing in sobs and I am wailing. It’s not a pretty sight and far from the happy vision I had about my Bean’s first day of nursery school. I have just dropped him off and he cried, a lot, clinging onto me for dear life; clinging on so tight that the teacher had to wrench him away from me so that I could leave. My heart is now in a million little pieces, heavy with guilt and worry.

The next couple of hours drag and I cannot wait to head back to the school to see whether he is ok (in fact, the thought does cross my mind to find a spot outside the school where I can sit and watch him, undetected, lurking in the shadows). Once back home I am met with an empty shell – the echo of Bean’s happy chatter replaced with silence. I wander through the empty rooms, packing away his unused toys, wondering where the time has gone – it seems like I blinked and now he is 2 and ready for school. I worry: is he ok? Did I send him to school too soon? Maybe he was not bored at home after all?  I feel out of control, not knowing what he is doing every second of the day, not knowing whether he needs me; whether he is smiling or crying.

The reality is that he is growing up (his very last molar is even growing) and young as he is, he is starting to find his own path in life. He is recognising like-minded kids to be friends with, he knows which activities he likes and dislikes and although he still very much needs me, he is trying to figure out how the world works on his own.

I realise that I am suffering from as much separation anxiety as he is and that I need to find a way back to myself (as a person, not just a mom), as much as he needs to find his feet in the world. Later, when I finally get to fetch Bean, I find him happily playing in the sandpit with the other kids. He is excited to see me, and he is ok. In fact, he is having fun.

He will go on to cry when I drop him off every day (not because he does not like the school, but because I am not there with him, which makes him feel vulnerable) and that is normal. His whole world (his daily routine and his caregiver) has changed, after all. To combat this, I tell him about all the exciting things he will do at school,  I try not to linger when I drop him off and I always tell him exactly when I will be back to fetch him.

And as for me, I try to be brave and I try not to let my fears and separation anxiety spill over onto him. I am also starting to really enjoy the free time, to do things like go to the hairdresser or having coffee in a non-child-friendly coffee shop (I had forgotten these places even existed). This new-found freedom is actually quite exciting.

Just do you, Mom

‘Mamaaaaaa’ my two-year-old sobs as I place him into his cot. It’s almost an hour past his usual bed time and he starts crying hysterically every time I try to put him down. This is new to me; my Bean has always slept on his own without any drama and I am getting frustrated – I cannot stand and rock my toddler to sleep for hours at a time after all. This happened the previous night and during his nap time, earlier today and I realise that Bean is suffering from separation anxiety again. He is scared and he wants to be close to his mom. My heart melts, I sit down in his rocking chair and I sing until he eventually falls into a deep sleep.

My little guy is going through so many changes, he is starting school soon, there is a baby on the way and I recently read him a book about a mom and dad who go to the hospital to have a baby and the mom only comes back a few days later. He is worried, he is scared and he is clinging onto me, his caregiver and his place of safety. I cannot be angry with him and I cannot let him cry it out. All I can do is to assure him of the fact that I will always come back.

Once Bean is asleep, I head to my book shelf, grab my various baby and toddler books and I google: how do I get this child to sleep? There are various answers, from crying it out to sleep training and none of the solutions really speak to me. At last, I come across an article posted by a sleep therapist and in it she mentions a few unconventional solutions: from allowing the child to fall asleep on a mattress in the lounge to letting the child fall asleep next to mom in his bed. I immediately call my husband and mention that it is time to move Bean into a big boy bed as this will allow me to lie next to him when he is scared.

Fast forward a few days and our house is filled with a peaceful, rested energy again. Bean loves his new big bed (we did make a big deal about it, allowing him to help choose the bedding and decorating his room, playing games on the bed etc) and he loves that I lie down next to him until he falls asleep (and to be honest, I love the extra cuddles and his gentle sleepy breaths – it brings peace to my worried mom-heart).

Yes, this is against all the usual sleep advice (some might even say it’s taboo), but it works. Bean’s fear might be irrational and it might not make sense to an adult, but to him, it is very real. When I leave him alone, he is scared – really scared. And I will not leave him to be scared if I do not have to. He is only two after all.

There will come a time when he will grow out of this separation anxiety again and one day, when he is a teenager, he will probably shut me out of his room with a no entry sign, so for now, I will indulge him and I will ensure that he knows that he can trust me, that he can trust that I will always be there for him.

One of the many things motherhood has taught me is that no child and parent combination is the same, no problem rears its head in exactly the same way and no solution has the same results. As a mom, you need to follow your gut and you need to do what feels right, rest assured that you are doing the best that you can do.

It can be easy to judge other moms and their parenting techniques, arrogant in the belief that what works for you must work for everyone else. But life is not like that and judging others is simply unnecessary.

So, you just do you, mom. You are this child’s mother. Follow your gut, your instinct and raise your child according to your own standards. Your heart gives amazing advice, all you need to do is listen to it.

How to Deal with Separation Anxiety

My son suffers from separation anxiety: I always imagine us literally looking like a pair of monkeys when we go anywhere: the mother monkey walking along the road with the baby monkey attached to her, its little arms and legs wrapped around her upper body so tight that there is no way this little baby is being left behind, forgotten or dropped. Similarly, Bean wraps himself around me, clinging on for dear life, when someone comes to visit or when we first arrive somewhere.

In Afrikaans we use the term ‘ma vas’ to describe a child who suffers from separation anxiety and it describes this phenomenon perfectly: being stuck to mom. Although I secretly love being so needed and loved, it can be very traumatising (for both my son and I) at times. When I have to go somewhere (anywhere, even the toilet) and I leave him with our nanny or his grandmother, or aunt, or sometimes even dad, he becomes hysterical. Granted, the crying does not last long and he soon gets distracted and carries on playing, but it is heart-breaking seeing those big crocodile tears rolling down his cheeks, hearing his heart-sore cry. It also makes nights difficult when he wakes up crying needing to be assured that I am there.

Although I have accepted that for now, my baby simply needs me and I will therefore do my best to be there for him, it is just not possible to be with him 24/7. I have therefore implemented the following steps to help mitigate Bean’s separation anxiety:

Build a relationship of trust

Before I leave, I pick Bean up, give him a big hug and tell him I am leaving, where I am leaving to, why I have to leave and most importantly, when I will be back. I make a point of telling the truth and I do not lie about any of the timelines given. I know that he is still small and does not understand it all, but there will be a time when he does, so for now I am laying the foundation for him to trust me.

Although it seems easier to quickly sneak out instead of saying good bye, I feel that this would create even more anxiety as he would never be 100% sure of my whereabouts.

Let him get accustomed to people and surroundings

This sounds logical but I have noticed that when we get somewhere, people in general, as well as family and friends, immediately want to hold Bean. In the case of people being newly introduced to Bean, they either want to get to know him and get a cuddle (because there is nothing better than baby cuddles) and in the case of family and friends, they love him and want to spend time with him. And I, of course, understand this – when I see him, I also immediately want to snatch him up and give him love! But he needs to first get used to his surroundings, get used to the new faces and be assured that I am not going anywhere. By doing this, Bean, confident that I am around in case he needs me, will start exploring and going to people on his own, within a short amount of time.

Socialise

I take Bean to a weekly music class as well as a mom and toddler class, and he loves it. Although he was a bit shy and very attached to me in the beginning, he now runs to the teachers and the other kids the minute we arrive. He does still walk back to me every so often, thumb in mouth, to grab hold of my shirt collar or scarf while laying his head on my shoulder to recharge, but for the rest of the class he confidently struts around, exploring anything new while he excitedly participates in all the activities.

Bean is still ‘ma vas’ but since I have implemented the above guidelines, it has gotten a lot better.  He knows that he can trust me and he can trust that fact that I will be there for him when he needs me.