Monday, November 28, 2011

Kids and Separation Anxiety

Genevieve has separation anxiety. She used to cry at preschool drop-off, and even last summer during her kindergarten-preparedness class, she was still crying on the second-to-last day of "school." Then she went and shocked the hell out of me by NOT crying when it came time to start kindergarten. That was really, really weird -- but I suspect the fact that her best friend, her favorite non-relative in the entire world BY FAR, is in her class and gets picked up by the school bus immediately before she does. Genevieve feels secure when this buddy is around, and her house is the only place Genevieve will willingly go for drop-off playdates.

But when it comes to anything else -- kids-only activities and classes, drop-off birthday parties, other playdates, even staying home with a visiting grandma while Christopher and I go out on a very rare date -- she will generally become extremely anxious and cry a lot and, if there's any option, she'll refuse to go.

Yesterday she cried so much when I brought her to our friends' daughter's birthday party, even though she was with her sister and we've been to this house and spent time with this family more times than any of us can count, that I had to hang around for a good 20 minutes, cuddling her and pointing out all the reasons she should stay, all the reasons this party would be safe and fun even though I wouldn't be there for the next two hours. In the end, she did agree to stay, holding hands with Julia and sniffling, as long as I promised to come back a little early. It worked out (no one called Christopher and me on our coffee date to have us come and rescue her), but those kinds of moments are SO not fun. You're upset for your child, you're regretful for disrupting everyone else's good time, you're sorry that the crying is distressing to some of the other children, you're not sure if you should leave your child or not. You're basically in a total sweat, and you're wondering if things are ever going to change.

Both my children have separation anxiety to some extent, in different forms and at different levels. Genevieve's is the classic, don't-leave-me type, the kind I assume will fade with age. Julia is usually fine with situations she knows well -- school, friends' birthday parties, weekly swimming lessons -- but every time she starts something new, she hangs back and will often cry and not want to go. She also has occasional episodes of tearfulness at school -- for one six- or eight-week period last year in 1st grade, she cried about leaving me every morning, and even now it's not uncommon for her to cry at school if there is an unexpected substitute teacher or something else unfamiliar or if she just misses me.

Some people say that if my children had been in daycare, or if I'd made them stay with babysitters more often when they were younger (and continued to do so now), they wouldn't be like this about separation. This could be true to some extent, but honestly, as a clinical psychologist, I firmly believe that anxiety (along with so many other things) is largely a function of inborn temperament. Heredity, genetics, whatever you want to call it. Anxiety is something certain people naturally tend toward, an approach to the world passed down biologically from brain to brain. It's the way some of us simply are.

I'm not saying that learning and experiences never mediate anxiety (in both directions); clinical anxiety disorders are one of the most rewarding psychological illnesses to treat, because they respond so well to cognitive-behavioral therapy (the type that I practice(d)). But the general (non-clinical) personality tendency to be anxious about things, the natural tendency to approach the unfamiliar with worry and anxiety -- that's inborn temperament. Also, my husband and I have never had the money to afford sitters on a regular basis. Right now, we are not even able to pay our basic household bills with our monthly income (to the rescue: credit cards and my parents' generosity); we certainly aren't able to hire babysitters.

So, really, it's all a moot point. It's just the way things are.

What about you; do your children ever suffer from separation anxiety? How do you handle it?


Rita said...

Oh girl. It's as if we're living identical lives.

Ugh. If only you lived closer we could meet for coffee after drop off and commiserate.

Here's my crackpot theory: the really advanced kids have bigger anxiety. My friends with normally developing children don't seem to deal with this as much.

Also? Paige is such a chicken that she won't even go upstairs IN HER OWN HOUSE unless someone is with her. She's too scared to be up there alone. *sigh*

Unknown said...

We are really struggling with anxiety too. Have you read "Your Anxious Child" by John S Dacey and Lisa B Fiore? I just started it at the suggestion of one of the specialists at Sibley. I can't tell you if it is helpful yet, but it has a lot of ideas for coping with anxiety. I'm in the first part of the book where they discuss the anxiety spectrum and an overview of the various types. I want to get through the whole book first before trying something. So hard.