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September 28, 2010

Letting Go: Coping with Separation Anxiety

BLOG-Letting-Go I clearly remember my oldest son Ryan’s terrible separation anxiety as a toddler: while he clung to my leg and wailed, I fought back my own tears to pry him off and leave him at daycare.

A few weeks ago, Ron and I hit a huge milestone in our lives:  We dropped Ryan off at college.  Like so many huge moments in life, it’s hard to appreciate the enormity of them when you’re in them; the practical side of you overrides the emotional side.

The lead up to his departure was consumed by a busy time at work and family vacations.  The practical planner in me was thinking about what needed to be done for Ryan – books, sheets, socks, soap! – forcing any emotions to the back of my mind. 

As we were preparing for Ryan’s departure, he joined me as I dropped off Adam, our younger son, at a friend’s house.  Unprompted, Ryan got out of the car, came around to Adam and said, “You take care of yourself.”  It wasn’t a long drawn-out goodbye, but it was so natural and so adult that I was overwhelmed.  It was the most adult I had ever seen Ryan, and it suddenly occurred to me that he’s not my baby anymore! 

Good-byes are tough for everyone – they’re riddled with uncertainty, perhaps some guilt, and definitely some anxiety. A good friend of mine has a four-year-old daughter who wailed inconsolably every day she tried to drop her off at daycare; conversely, my friend wailed for an hour in the car on her way to work afterward. This went on every weekday for three months, despite the daycare director’s reassurances that my friend’s daughter’s waterworks dried up the minute the door shut behind her.

If you sense that your child might be feeling anxiety over the prospect of you going back to work, there are a few things you can do to help prepare him or her. If you’re leaving him with a baby-sitter, try to start small and leave for short periods of time, building up to longer if you feel ready. If you’re trying to prepare your child for daycare or preschool, see if they have an open house or an orientation night, so that your child can familiarize himself with the new environment. The key word is baby steps!

Ron and I unpacked Ryan under hot and humid conditions.  We were focused on the task at hand:  set up his new dorm room and try not to overheat! The truth is, Ryan isn’t too far from home.  We’ll see him regularly. I didn’t feel sad or anxious  as we unpacked him. But I knew at that moment, he needed to get involved with his dorm mates and classmates.  I needed to stop folding his t-shirts!  I realized later that what got me through my separation anxiety in that moment was eureka moment between Ryan and Adam. Now that I had seen him as an adult, in a new way, I could look forward to more moments like this in our lives.

Interestingly enough, some schools are taking active steps to handle parents’ anxiety and foster their students’ independence right from the getgo; the New York Times recently detailed colleges’ strategies for hustling clingy moms and dads off campus as soon as possible!

If you’re interested in more strategies for dealing with separation anxiety (both with your child and as an adult!) check out the helpful resource article we’ve posted at here. If you’re dealing with leaving your child with a babysitter for the first time, we have tips for that too!

Bottom line? You both will be all right.


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Laura Simpson

What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing. I'm the mom of a preschooler and, although she's only 4, I already have such a deep concern about her growing up and leaving home. It's such a comfort to hear from other moms like you who are navigating the same emotions.


This morning I dropped my 16 month old son at daycare for the third week and left to the sound of his unconsolable crying, feeling horrible. As I drove to work I wonder if everyone goes through the same thing, how long it would take, and how much I wish I could hear from other moms who had gone through the same thing. As I open my computer, the first email I see was Sheila's blog, as if she was reading my mind. I made me feel so much better. Thank you!!!


My 15 month old sometimes wails and wants mommy when I'm at work (I work from home). What gets me through is the fact that I know what I'm doing is giving her the care she needs (food on the table, money for classes, etc.). They do get better and things get a bit easier as time goes by...


That is an awesome story! I have a 19 year old and a 2 year old. Needless to say I had the same emotional moment last year dropping my teen off for his first year of college as well as finding an in home nanny for my baby a year earlier. This year was our second year dropping off our son at college, which is not far away from us, but I must admit, I was an emotional mom this time as well. My husband did the honors of driving him without me and I was able to stay home and bask in the fact that we have raised a terrific kid. I just love our boys and like most moms, I think they are phenomenal kids. I'm now concentrating on getting prpared for my 2 year old to go to pre school next year LOL!

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