Separation Anxiety? A “pick-me-up” for school drop-offs

“Separation anxiety,” from a behavioral point of view, is the same as any other behavior in that it is functional…it serves a purpose.  What purpose does it usually serve?  You ready?

I have been unreasonably hesitant to write about “separation anxiety” for some reason.  I openly talk to parents about it without problems, but I know it can encroach on some pretty sensitive grounds.  However, I do feel BehaviorBandAid is missing something if we don’t talk about it.  Here goes.

Lets define it.

For the purposes of this discussion, let me just say I am calling “separation anxiety” the crying, screaming, holding onto your left leg as you struggle (emotionally and physically) to get away behavior.  Your kid is scratching at the window, running out the door, kicking and screaming while the babysitter is wondering what she got herself into.  Misery.  We talked about some of this when we talked about getting your kids to bed.

This can be hard…

First, function

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, even those with the problem.  The function (read: “purpose”) of these behaviors is most likely regained access to you (assuming you are the one dropping them off or leaving them).

You try to leave….he cries…you return

You try to leave again…she screams and runs for you…you stay a little while longer

On top of that, when you return, it is usually a more comforting, nurturing version of you.  An extra few minutes, a few more good-bye kisses, a few more hugs, and a few more steps towards the door.

Take a look at this…

Did you see what just happened above?  Your kid does not want you to leave (a natural emotion) and crying, screaming and throwing a fit got you back to him.  It was FUNCTIONAL.  The emotional outburst was successful in getting him what he did not previously have…you.

For those that really have this problem, these things rarely help.  Your actions might even make it worse.  You know this, you are simply hesitant to do what I am about to tell you to do.

Stop, drop and roll

A teacher friend of mine has a saying about parent drop-off at her school in the morning.  She sees plenty of kids struggling to get out of the car with their parents, and plenty of parents struggling to let their kids go.  Her motto is: stop (your car), drop (off your kids) and roll (the hell out of the parking lot…see you at 3:00).

I’m not going to be that harsh, but she is close…because here is the secret:

Your kid is fine once you leave

Try this first.

If the problem is leaving your kid, create a good-bye routine.  Two high fives, a knuckle-bump and a hug, then you are out.  Practice it at home.  Leave her in her room and play like you are leaving at school or with a babysitter.  Let her know you will be back.  Come back later, but don’t make a huge deal over it…just tell her you will always be back.  Practice this…this is as much for you as it is for your kid.  Do it as much as possible, even at times when you are leaving when she usually does not have the problem.  This is what you do when you leave…every time.

On the way to school remind them of the “good-bye” deal.  Let them know you are into it.  When you get to school, do the good-bye routine and leave.  LEAVE.  Don’t come back.  Please.  Your kids are safe.  If you do not trust your kid’s teacher, you have a bad situation and a bigger problem.  If you do, your kid will be fine.  Leave.

You don’t love your kid less, you are not torturing them, and no, one more hug won’t help.  Put him down and leave…at this point it is about you…not your kid (OK, I said it).

Please understand why I am asking you to do this.  I am asking you to do this so you do not accidentally create a situation where your kid has more and more trouble being away from you and it actually turns into serious and real anxiety.  You are a safe and nurturing place…that is good.  That is the way it is supposed to be.  But, there are problems associated with your kid being dependent only on you for those things.  Her happiness and security relies on you being there.  Thats not good.  It will potentially keep your kids from exploring other things and being able to enjoy times away from you.  It will also exhaust you to the point where that one day, you finally say “thats enough” and you leave them in a complete mess at soccer camp, school or a friend’s house.  Don’t create that moment…prepare your kids for being away from you.  They will need that one day, and so will you.



“Mommy…I’m scared”


This is a long overdue answer to a question written in to BehaviorBandAid:

I have a problem.  My son is 4.5 and has a twin sister. He is now scared to go in any room of our house alone.  This is now affecting his sleep. He now wakes up between 5:15 and 5:45 because he is scared. His sister is in the room, but…he can’t go to the bathroom alone or to get his clothes from his room without one of us going with.

Interestingly, the experiences this mother has are not uncommon. I recently posted an article written about “fear of the dark” that I feel was interesting and helpful in terms of getting through different “fears” kids often have.   My answer is a little more in depth, so see what you think.

I believe the answer lies in practice outside the event when it usually occurs (you don’t want to practice hitting a baseball only at the times when the bases are loaded and there are 2 out) and a bit of work up front when the occasion is likely to occur.  Make sense?  Lets attack this one area at a time.

Calming agent: It seems the “calming agent” is you or your husband (a good think if you time it correctly).  We need to arrange this from the beginning to make sure you are initially present and slowly fade that presence instead of putting him out there, crossing your fingers, then going to him once he gets more and more fearful.  This is likely not a “sink or swim” situation in which you can say “you do it this time” because you might be setting up a situation where you are contributing to his experiences of getting scared and having that fear relieved by you guys. 

Play it out:  Find opportunities to “play games” where he can practice being alone for short periods of time and experience fun around those events.  I quickly begin to think of “hide and go seek.”  Play games with getting dressed up (independently).  The idea is to find ways to make these behaviors fun, so they are likely to occur then you can reward them and use them as a reference in the future…”see you can do it!”

Set the alarm:  As for the nighttime thing, does this happen every night (having to wake up to use the restroom then calling for you guys to go with)?  If so, (and this might be initially painful) I would set my alarm for 4:00 AM, go in to get him before he wakes and take him.  Don’t make this very entertaining, but do reinforce this with praise, “good job…I knew you could do it. Well done.”  Send him back to bed and tell him you will come to wake him up later, but he needs to be in his bed.  Make sure you get there (again…initially painful) a bit before he is likely to wake on his own (given you have already toileted…if that is a nightly thing).  If that is too early to be up and about, you should give him things to do when he is awake, but in bed.  I am trying to make sure he does not need you at these times and at the very least has a lesser opportunity to gain access to you by screaming or calling out for you and “being scared.”

Slowly back away:  Slowly fade your presence from the bathroom (assuming this occurs throughout the day).  Begin by going with him before he asks.  Over time, slowly fade out (“O.K., I will be right here outside the door” – “O.K. I am going to step into the kitchen” — “O.K. I will be in the living room”).  Praise and maybe even have some other reward (see this post and this one).  The idea is to do this slowly enough that he will be likely to succeed and less likely to get fearful and then get access to you.  This applies to the nighttime thing too.  If he can go overnight without you…there needs to be some positive effect of that.  Whether that is solid praise and high fives or something more tangible is up to you guys (consider what it would be like not to have to wake up at 5:00 in the morning when considering this).

Timing is everything:  Same idea with the clothes.  You essentially want to begin with what you would do after he gets scared, but do it before he gets scared and tries to get access to you guys.  So, if you go collect the clothes for him when he says he is scared, then I would do that before he gets scared (go with him) and then fade back from that after you have gotten some momentum with him doing it without getting scared.  Again…not a “sink or swim” behavior because you know he needs to get dressed and you will ultimately help him if he gets scared.  So, my idea is to go back to where his success can be rewarded then slowly and predictably move back and let the effects of the success take hold.

Main ideas: a) the recognition that it is your attention and help that is likely the “calming agent,” b) this attention and help can be used to your advantage before the fear behavior occurs, c) “sink or swim” won’t likely apply, d) praise, reward, praise as you slowly back away.  Fear is reduced initially by reducing the opportunity for the fear to occur (you are there from the get-go) and is less likely to occur as you reward the independent behavior and back away.