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Separation Anxiety?


By Hal Runkel, LMFT


When I give seminars to parents, I always leave some time at the end for questions. One that I seem to get quite often deals with an issue that simply begs me to stand on a soapbox. The question in question deals with separation anxiety. My soapbox deals not with the one asking the question, but rather, the philosophy behind the question itself. So, are you ready for a ScreamFree rant? That may be a contradiction in terms, but this question deserves it. So, here goes:


Separation anxiety is another of my industry's attempts to diagnose an observed set of behaviors in children. And most of these diagnoses, in my minority opinion, are misdirected in their focus and counterproductive in their effect.


Take this one, for instance. Separation anxiety is diagnosed upon any toddler who exhibits consistent crying, whining, or even thrashing when separated from his/her parent. This usually occurs at daycare or preschool, or at the church nursery. Sometimes the child just loses it upon the first 10 minutes after drop-off, sometimes it's happening during the entire time of separation.


This, of course, frustrates and even exasperates the daycare workers, and after they make numerous mentions to the parents, the parents are then exasperated as well. They are usually very quickly at their wit's end, dreading each drop-off for fear of yet another major episode. Some desperate parents even move the child from daycare to daycare, trying to find a situation that will work. The whole mess can leave even the strongest of parents crying out in desperation, wondering aloud if they will ever be able to leave her child without a major ordeal.


It is not surprising, then, that labeling the child with a mental/emotional problem like separation anxiety would come as a relief to all involved. With this label, it becomes a condition within the child that can be addressed, treated, and even "cured." But while that may come as a relief, the effect of this diagnosis is to crystallize all the problems ScreamFree Parenting hopes to address.


In reality, there is no such "thing" as separation anxiety. It is not an objective condition that can be revealed by a blood test or supported by hard data. Separation anxiety is much more subjective than that. It is merely a construct, a creation of many minds seeking to categorize a set of behaviors, namely the crying and thrashing of a child upon drop-off. The number of common minds in agreement, be it childcare workers or scientists or old wives, does not make the construct real. It only makes it commonly heard and used. And of course, the more common, the more used. And then it only feeds on itself to become a factual condition.


Another problem to think about is this: Why do we automatically assume this "condition" is located within the child? Because children don't hide anxiety as well as parents or the daycare employees? As you can probably tell by my tone, I have very little patience for any perspective that always sees child behaviors completely within the psyche of the child and thus, totally out of any larger relational context. Kids don't grow up in a vacuum. What is going on at home, for instance, between the parent and child, between the parents, between the siblings? Who gets most anxious about the child's separation issues, and what does he/she do about it? What happens then? Allow me to paint just one possible context:


Little Johnny's just turned three, and after some deliberation, Mom & Dad decided it was time for him to go to preschool and time for Mom to return to work. Perhaps this was a difficult decision, perhaps it was part of the plan all along. But this shift is a dramatic one for the whole family, to say the least. Johnny's now going to a strange place with strange grownups who are trying to manage a bunch of other strange kids. This is all very overwhelming for the little guy. But that's just one transition.


For Mom & Dad, this transition brings perhaps even more overwhelming adjustments. While Mom stayed at home with Johnny, life eventually got into a comfortable, albeit exhausting, routine. Mom nurtured kids and home. She bought the minivan, slid into the comfy denim overalls, and changed her email address to momofjohnny@aol.com. She tried to quiet herself when doubts about this whole stay-at-home-mom identity arose, because it's what she "always wanted," and it's what she and her husband "always agreed upon." But when she was honest with herself, she really missed working on something other than limiting her toddler's TV time and extending his naps.


Meanwhile, pre-preschool, Dad went to work all day and then came home and played with Johnny. He became adjusted to the tradeoff of his wife becoming Mother first and bride second. He even unknowingly used that to feel justified in his relaxation on the dirty work of house and family, and just concentrate on working hard to provide for it all. And the resentment built on both sides of the fence.


But now all that's changed, because they've decided to start Johnny at preschool. And Mom's staring down the dreaded "first day of work" at a new company. And since her job starts a little later than Dad's, she's the one who's taking Johnny to school in the morning. And, somehow, she ends up picking him up most nights. And despite her protests that she's now working full-time, she's doing just as much housework as before.


And a few weeks into this new lifestyle, little Johnny is still having screaming fits every morning upon drop-off.


So, in all of that complex context, we're going to say that it's obvious that the real issue is that Johnny's got an anxiety problem? We all know kids are sponges of information, language, and attitudes, right? Well, guess what...they are sponges of adult anxiety as well. But instead of examining all these contextual issues, and they are admittedly complex, we find it easier to affix an emotional disorder label on a toddler.


Here's my advice: please don't. I do not know your particular situation, and it may be nothing like the one I've described above, but regardless, please don't label your toddler with an adjustment problem, or an anxiety issue. How we think about and define a problem is usually the biggest part of that problem. And how we then try to fix it just usually makes it worse.


Instead, take a pause. Pause and begin to investigate the entire relational context around the issue. Your toddler is struggling with the separation involved in daycare. OK, pause. Take a breath. Talk to the daycare and get all the facts from several sources. Then ask them a very important, yet difficult question: Ask them how they think you're doing. They see all types of parents and guardians dropping off kids, and they can usually point out in the parking lot which kids are going to struggle the most, just based on the parents' body language. Next ask your spouse how he/she thinks you're doing. Ask them to be honest.


Finally, ask yourself how you're doing. Are you behaving in the mornings the way you'd like to behave? The pros at drop-off are those who get up early enough to have a peaceful morning routine. They are those who never get riled or upset by their child's protest because they see such protests just as a child's way of testing their parents, making sure that the parent is committed to this structure. If the parent wavers at all, usually because of all the internal conflict about the surrounding relational context, then the child then feels unsafe. If the child feels unsafe, then of course they're going to be anxious.


The greatest thing we can do for our kids is learn to focus on ourselves, putting ourselves in the calmest position to lead our kids into life. And of course, even if only on occasion, that includes dropping them off into the care of others. The more comfortable you are with that idea and experience, the more comfortable your kids will become with others. It really is that simple.


Now, excuse me while I step down from my soapbox. The air is getting a little thin.


Hal Edward Runkel, LMFT is an expert on human relationships. Through family therapy, organizational consulting, and professional coaching he has developed the ScreamFree Living approach to relationships. Seen by millions on iVillage Live (NBC) and the CW's nationally syndicated The Daily Buzz, Hal is the founder and president of ScreamFree Living, Inc., as well as the voice behind the ScreamFree Living book series. Hal is also part of the eHarmony parenting team and travels coast-to-coast sharing his ScreamFree relationship programs with audiences through teleconferences, web seminars, newsletters, training classes, and the book series. He is also the author of ScreamFree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool from Broadway Books and Waterbrook/Multnomah Press. For more information, visit ScreamFree.com.



Categories: Toddlers, Pre-Schoolers, Children,

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