It’s Hard to Say “Bye”: Co-Parenting and Separation Anxiety

August 10th

2023

Unhappy child hug leaving parent say goodbye

The Gist

  • Separation anxiety is distress or upset experienced by children and adults upon separation from each other. Typically, it impacts young children or their parents, but it can actually occur at any age.
  • Major life events such as parental divorce or separation, trauma, loss, or the start of a new school or new school year can trigger separation anxiety.
  • Co-parenting families may find that as their children adjust to their new dynamic and to transitions between households they display signs of separation anxiety.
  • Co-parents can work together to cope with separation anxiety by monitoring their own feelings, talking with their children about feelings and ways to cope, practicing being apart from each other, and helping them to form bonds with other caregivers.

The tears, the never-ending hugs, the “please don’t go”s: whether you’re dropping your child off at preschool or college, partings can bring sweet sorrow at this time of year. Both caregivers and their children may find that separation anxiety crops up more often as the start of school approaches. It’s a common phenomenon in even the healthiest of relationships, but an important one to address nevertheless… because in even the healthiest of relationships, grown-ups and their little ones must eventually learn how to function in the world without each other. This week’s post offers comfort and wisdom to all those co-parents and kids whose heartstrings are being pulled by separation anxiety. We’ll help soften the blow for both of you and even strengthen your resilience in the process.


Separation Anxiety, Defined:

From birth, human beings are wired for connection; our biology compels us to seek interaction with others, and there’s arguably no greater example of this than the parent-child relationship. Parental instincts drive us to look out for, protect, and nurture our children, and they in turn seek proximity to us, their primary caregivers, to keep them safe and help them navigate the world around them. It seems logical, then, that both parties might experience distress and worry when drawn apart. This phenomenon is known as separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is a normal part of our development. We commonly think of it as a phase that pertains to infants and toddlers, and it is in fact during those earliest years up until age 2 that it peaks (Source: Separation Anxiety | Psychology Today ). After that point, kids gain understanding of object permanence- that is, that things or people can exist even when out of our line of sight- and that their parents aren’t disappearing forever when they leave but rather will come back to them again later.

But in real time, separation anxiety can play out at different times throughout the lifespan, with varying degrees of severity. A sense of sadness similar to that which we first experienced in infancy can be incited anew by any momentous life situation, transition, or change that requires us to be away from our loved ones. This can even manifest in other relationships besides the parent-child one; truthfully, any of us can feel that familiar pang when we say goodbye (even temporarily) to someone we love. When we view separation anxiety in this light, it becomes ageless, and we are all vulnerable to it.

Some examples of situations that may trigger separation anxiety (in co-parents and kids!) include:

  • Infancy/toddlerhood: As we mentioned, this is a normal part of development as our brains grasp the idea that our parents exist even when they’re not in our line of sight.
  • Moving (household to household or to a different location altogether.
  • Health issues/scares (such as hospitalization, sudden illness or injury, etc.)
  • Changes in family status (i.e., parental separation or divorce)
  • Grief/Loss (death of a loved one or pet, loss of material possessions, or a major change that requires an ending of something- like a friend moving away, the end of the marriage, etc.)
  • Custody changes and transitions
  • “Stranger danger:” fear triggered by unfamiliar people (“strangers”) or situations
  • Travel
Mom talk with teenager suffering at home

Factors Influencing Separation Anxiety:

The degree to which a child or parent experiences separation anxiety can vary based on intrinsic factors (those that are innate to the individual, from birth, through genetics) and extrinsic factors (which are situational). We can’t always conclusively tell whether these factors will make it better or worse, but in most cases we can confidently say that they will have an influence one way or the other. These may include:

  • Personality and temperament: the degree of extroversion and ability to soothe oneself (on the whole, shy, reserved kids, or those who have a harder time regulating themselves or are harder to soothe, may struggle with separation more than their more extroverted, easy-going peers)
  • Neurodivergence: Cognitive or developmental issues like developmental delays, language or learning difficulties, autism, ADHD, etc. can impact behavior.
  • Mental Health Issues: Depression and anxiety can affect reactions to separation. Children who suffer from these issues and mothers with postpartum depression or anxiety typically display more separation anxiety.

Signs of Separation Anxiety in Children and Adults

We all have unique ways of displaying our emotions. However, separation anxiety tends to look similar in most kids and grown-ups. Read on for a list of the common signs: (Source: Separation Anxiety: What’s Normal and When to Worry | Children's Hospital of Philadelphia)

Kids:
  • Expressing worry (through words or behavior) about having to be away from parent(s)
  • Physical symptoms (stomach aches, headaches, sweating, shaking, etc.) either at the time of separation or ongoing
  • Worrying about what the parent is doing, or about the other parent’s well-being, while apart
  • Clinging or staying close to the parent- even at home
  • Refusing to participate or attend activities/events such as school, sports practices, play dates, parties/sleepovers with peers, etc.
  • Refusal to accept comfort/assistance from others (other than preferred parent)
  • Refusal to speak
  • Screaming, crying, calling out for the parent,
Parents/adults:
  • Reluctance or even unwillingness to allow child to do things without the parent
  • Worrying about what the child is doing while apart
  • Fear that no one else will be able to care for the child as well as the parent
  • Following the child overly closely when outside of the home
  • Discouraging the child’s independence with age-appropriate activities or tasks
  • Perseverating on negative thoughts or emotions while apart from the child

As we’ve stated above, we know that separation anxiety can be normal and even healthy, a part of being a living, breathing human in relationship with others. However, if separation anxiety becomes so intense that it impedes functioning, then it crosses over into an unhealthy realm. In some cases, separation anxiety can even be characterized as a disorder. The difference between the two basically comes down to duration and intensity; that is, how long has the anxiety persisted, how severe or harmful are the presenting symptoms, and how much is it impacting the child or adult’s ability to function day-to-day?

In these more extreme scenarios, more targeted intervention may be required. If you suspect that you or your child may need additional help or are unsure of what to do, consider consulting with professionals such as your child’s teacher, pediatrician or your General Practitioner, school social worker, or a trained therapist. **For more detailed information about separation anxiety disorder, check out this article: Separation Anxiety | Psychology Today


My Child Is Fine When I Leave. Should I Be Worried?

We’ve covered the bases in talking about both “typical” and “atypical” separation anxiety, but what about kids who don’t show any signs of distress when parted from their parents? If you’re finding yourself in these shoes, don’t assume that something is wrong with you or your child. In extreme situations, a lack of reaction to separation from a primary caregiver could be a sign that something is wrong, but in most cases it just means that your child is well-adjusted.

Kids who feel secure in their relationship with their caregivers can handle separation with greater ease because they have internalized the belief that they’re safe. They understand that their parents feel safe leaving them, and that their parents will always return. So in many cases, if your child waves “bye” to you without incident, it may mean that cognitively and developmentally they’ve reached a “happy” place where they feel comfortable exploring on their own. Also, if your child has had greater experience with separation- for example, has attended daycare- then subsequent incidents, like attending school, may be easier for him.


Separation Anxiety And Co-parenting:

Separation anxiety can be extra poignant for co-parenting families. The initial rupture of the romantic relationship between parenting partners is, after all, a form of separation, and can bring up those familiar feelings of sadness, unease, and fear. Let’s explore the connection between separation anxiety and co-parenting.

  • Co-parents may behave differently as they struggle to process their new family dynamic. Some may become distant or appear “checked out” and less engaged, while others may over-fixate on their children and divert all of their energy into caring for them. Either way, kids can sense that something is “off” and may worry about them.
  • Children may become increasingly attached to one or both co-parents as they struggle to make sense of the changes going on around them. They may have a harder time going to school or other activities.
  • Children may also worry more about how their parents are doing in their absence. This may be especially true in situations where the co-parents argue frequently.
  • Children may have to endure more frequent separations. Transitioning between households for custody exchanges or visitations requires a lot of shifting back and forth between parents. This can lead to an increase in separation anxiety.
  • Co-parents may have more time without their children than they did previously, as their children leave for custody time with the other parent. They may experience loneliness and sadness which they may inadvertently project onto their children.

Co-parenting requires you to navigate many “ups” and “downs.” Separation anxiety may be one of those things that you’ll have to wade through as you establish a new “normal” for your family. Don’t be surprised if it arises more often in the beginning, or surrounding transition times like custody exchanges. The best way for you and your parenting partner to face this issue is together. Put aside your differences so that you can collaborate on a plan. Any action steps you take will be most effective if done by both parents, in both households. Read on for strategies that can minimize the impact of separation anxiety on your family unit. Then, share them with your parenting partner and choose those which make the most sense for all of you.


Softening Separation Anxiety:

  • Understand that separation anxiety will likely happen for your family at some point, and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Be patient, and try to refrain from blaming or judging yourself, your parenting partner, or your child.
  • Allow some extra leeway for your child to adjust to your co-parenting dynamic. If you’ve recently separated or your custody schedule has recently changed, be prepared to offer extra support and reassurance around any separation times.
  • Acknowledge the struggle for what it is. No feelings or anxieties were ever healed by pretending they weren’t happening, or trying to repress them. Tell your child (and yourself!) that it’s ok to have all kinds of feelings, even when they’re negative.
  • Educate your child on emotions and ways to cope with them. Read books, play games, talk about them as they’re happening, etc. Model for your child how you handle your own upset feelings.
  • Check in with your own mental health; how are you feeling and coping? Caring for your child will require lots of physical, mental, and emotional energy. Take care of yourself first and get yourself the support you need, so that you can be there to support your child.
  • Be mindful of your verbal and nonverbal messages. Kids often pick up on our true thoughts and feelings, and they’re always watching what we do. If your child gets distressed when you separate, try to examine your own behavior; could you have somehow sent a message that you’re uncomfortable or that your relationship won’t be the same if you spend some time apart? You and your co-parent should do your best to convey confidence whenever you leave your child with someone else.
  • As co-parents, there are few greater joys than time spent with your child; however, it’s important to remember that your child isn’t responsible for keeping you entertained, or for providing you with human connection. Cultivate your relationships with others, and help your child to do so as well. Don’t make your child feel guilty for enjoying time away from you.
  • Encourage your child’s independence. You can begin to do this even when they’re with you at home, by setting up activities that they can do on their own sitting next to you, and then as they get older and more capable they can move to another room or floor of the house. When your child attempts to play or do age-appropriate things without you, refrain from interrupting them or forcing yourself into the activity; this could derail their efforts to explore on their own.
  • If possible, schedule brief times to be away so that you can both “practice” separation. For example, you could introduce a potential babysitter or other caregiver and have that person play with both of you during the first visit and then at a later date plan to leave them together in the house while you enjoy some time to yourself.
  • Ensure that both you and your co-parent put effort into nurturing your separate relationships with your child, even if one of you is parenting from a distance. Spend quality one-on-one time together, and maintain frequent contact even when you’re apart. This can make separation (for school or for visitations and custody exchanges) easier.
  • Facilitate smooth drop-offs (at school or wherever else you’re bringing your child). Wondering what this looks like? Check out our learning guide where we spell it out for you:

There are only two lasting requests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.

Co-Parenting: Giving Your Children the Wings to Fly

Co-parenting is a complicated dance of holding on to our children and letting them go. Both steps are equally important for their growth and development, and it’s our job to figure out the right balance of the two. Use this week’s post to help you find your rhythm as you navigate these separations with your child. And stay tuned for next week, as we take a tour of parenting strategies through the ages; we’ll be talking about how discipline has changed over the years, and how this can impact your co-parenting.

Where you can stay informed on what's happening in the world of co-parenting and learn more about what we do.


By Koh-Parenting Services LLC


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