Separation Anxiety: Two Tools That Will Help

from the hand in hand blog(1)

In the middle of preparing for a talk on Separation Anxiety with my fellow Hand in Hand Instructor, Anca Deaconu, my children decided to give me the perfect opportunity to practice what I preach.

It started with beginning of the school year at kindergarten.

This fall, my youngest one, Eva, started kindergarten. She had accompanied me everyday the previous year to pick up her older sister, Areta, and was very familiar with the place. She knew all the rooms, corridors and employees. She had charmed everybody with her joyfulness, openness and kindness. I was thinking: “This is going to be a piece of cake.

And it was. At first…

But then mommy left home for a few days to attend a Hand in Hand Retreat in Hungary. And after that happened Eva began crying at kindergarten and refusing to go into the classroom.

On the first day, her daddy dropped her off and had to leave her crying with the teacher.

On the second day, I took her. I was already turning to my first Hand in Hand Tool for help. I settled on Staylistening, and I stayed for 30 minutes that day listening to her cries.

A Mini-Primer on Staylistening

StayListening-Icon-FullColor-RGBStaylistening emphasizes the need to stay close to your child while she offloads her big feelings through crying (you may have noticed that crying is often and efficiently used by children!).

By being close and holding space for her, your child offloads her feelings about a situation, event or person while still feeling like a good, loved person.

Using the tool allowed Eva to get to her deeper feelings. I knew, because she was saying to me, “You left me all alone. You went away for a long time. Why didn’t you take me with you?”

Daddy took her again on the third day, and this time he Staylistened for 40 minutes, but Eva wasn’t done yet.

He had to leave her crying once again, feeling exhausted, worried and disoriented. “What did I do wrong? he asked.

Actually, he did everything right. But I could see her fear had really taken hold.

What Happens As Fear Takes Over

When fear takes over a little one, her brain’s prefrontal cortex shuts down. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for thinking, reasoning and judgment. The moment the prefrontal cortex is in shutdown mode, the child can’t think, doesn’t feel safe and his brain functions on emotions. But as this stress state floods the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for emotion and sensory perception, children kick into flight or fight mode.

To regain an ability to think, a child needs to feel safe first. The best place to find that is by connecting with a attachment figure. As safe feelings return, the child offloads some of the fear and regains her emotional equilibrium.

Crying is a children’s favorite tool for offloading feelings, followed by laughter. As an adult, I still find that nothing clears the mind better than a good cry or a good laugh.

But back to Eva and her separation.

“What are we to do?” My husband had called me on the phone.

There was only one answer, tool number two: Special Time. A chance to foster closeness, and maybe some laughter.

(With lots of a third tool, Listening Time for daddy. Like an adult-to-adult Staylistening, Listening Partnerships let parents offload their own feelings in a confidential and non-judgmental space. These sessions can open up amazing insights into your thinking about a situation and offer a route to new solutions and confidence.)

That morning we did Special Time, the house had been full of questions and statements. “I don’t want to wake up! I don’t want to go to kindergarten! Why do we have to go to school?!”

I seized this opportunity to offer five minutes of Special time.

The rule was “first dressed, first served.”

At Eva’s turn, she asked to play with a remote-controlled toy car that her brother had received for his birthday and that she hadn’t been allowed to use before. She sent the car over to me, and I acted surprised each time the car drove away. Then she sat on my lap and drove the car from there, taking advantage of some body to body connection. Soon, the five minutes were up. Eva kissed me, put her shoes on and left.

At 8:15 her father called me joyous and surprised (mostly surprised) and told me that Eva had gone to her classroom full of energy and very happy.

What is Special Time?

Special Time encourages laughter and builds trust, the two bricks any family would want as their foundation.

Raising a well-balanced child takes good quality time, playing and connection, a difficult task when we all have jobs, cleaning and cooking, children to take care of, and, some occasional rest and relaxation essential to recharge.

Of course, we don’t have time to do Staylistening for 40 minutes every morning, but Special Time is a flexible tool ideal for the busy times we’re living in.

SpecialTime-Icon-FullColor-RGBHow does Special Time work?

You set a timer for a certain amount of time, say between five and 20 minutes, and you two do what your child likes. By following his direction, you show him love, interest, appreciation and your undivided attention.

Children might use the safety of Special Time to say or do things they are normally not allowed to say or do, or to test your limits, and it’s worth remembering that what happens in Special Time, stays in Special Time. Even when you feel pushed, try keeping in mind is that Special Time strengthens the connection between parent and child and helps build her self esteem and confidence.

And all in 10 minutes!

…repeated regularly over a long period of time – you didn’t think I was some kind of parenting magician did you?

But Maybe We Weren’t Quite Done?

In fact, none of these tools are a magic trick to easy parenting and your children’s challenging will not disappear overnight the minute you apply them. But they are a lasting guide to calmer, connected parenting, and can be used in whatever situations crop up. Instead of taking opposing sides and fighting out every battle, the tools bring you into a partnership with your children, where you help them through step-by-step.

Which brings me back to Eva.

Later that day, after kindergarten, we stopped at in a parking lot near a forest for 15 minutes of Special Time because the three children were squabbling in the back seat.

Eva wanted me to wait for her with my arms wide open. She ran away as I complained, “Don’t go! Don’t leave me alone!”

She answered, “Don’t worry! I’ll be back soon! I won’t leave you!”

When she ran back and I finally had her in my arms, I said happily, “Oh, I’m so happy you came back!”

I got the feeling she was still working on her some of her separation fear. What do you think?

Read this article in Romanian.

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