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How To Recognize Separation Anxiety

“My stomach hurts.” “I can’t sleep;” “Can you close my closet?” “Can I just sleep with you?”

Sound familiar? You are not alone--and neither is your child.

Obviously all children have times of anxiety when leaving their parents, or meeting new people, or going to a sleepover for the first time. Most will even go through a period of wanting to sleep in your room. What they don’t generally do is miss school, throw random tantrums about leaving you or turn down sleepovers with their close friends.

They also don’t spend two years trying to sleep in their own bed, alone in their own room, but just being incapable of it. Seriously.

Twelve Percent of Kids Develop Separation Anxiety

Approximately 12% of children suffer from separation anxiety disorder before they reach 18. I wish i had clued into any of the tell-tale signs before i did. Things like asking "what if" or having "sick" symptoms or the not sleeping. But when you are living through it, it feels singular; like you alone are battling these ever-elusive sleep demons.

For a while I traveled a couple of days a week for work-- and my leaving was excruciating. It was also excruciating when I called home and could barely understand anything being said through enormous fits of tears and “Come home, Mommy; please come home.” It broke my heart. My husband was hassled, frustrated and downright cranky: trying to get her to school was anything but pretty in the mornings I was away. I felt enormous guilt and would practically cry myself listening to all of this going on. But I comforted myself. I just thought “ this too shall pass”.

That all changed one day when my daughter’s kindergarten teacher saw me dropping her off and said “oh it’s so great having you home--no more tummy aches.” EXCUSE ME?? That was the first I had heard of those apparently daily events. The fact that they disappeared when i was home was clearly a sign that she was distressed. Kylie had worried I would get hurt or die in an airplane, or not come home, or any number of things all the time. But we didn’t know that--she didn’t have the words, was too scared to say it, or maybe we didn’t stop to ask the right questions.

Things improved when i was home more often. So again, I wasn’t too concerned. She went to school fine and had friends and had fun. She was a bundle of joy, laughter and creativity. Until she wasn’t. And then watch out--tantrums like crazy. Inconsolable tears; fits where she would straighten her back and not get into the car to save her life. She stopped going to sleep overs, or would go but have to be picked up in the night--and believe me, that was not good for anyone.


And then, after years of sleeping just fine in her own room, she stopped. Just stopped. At first we thought she must have had a bad dream the night before or something. But it kept going. Night after night, we would check her room and closet for bad guys and people that might want to hurt Mom. She couldn’t sleep because what if there was a fire? What if someone broke into the house; what if she was kidnapped? Or worse, what if her brother was? So when we were beyond ourselves with exhaustion and frustration, we found a counselor and had her start seeing someone to talk to and work through the fears. But now on top of the no sleep, the stomach aches were back; panic attacks going to school were starting. Clearly she was struggling. Unfortunately, by then we were all struggling.

Our efforts to calm her or use reasoning were completely ineffective. Sick of the arguing and tears, we tried letting her sleep with us for a very little while. Wrong choice! So wrong. Then no one slept because the bed was too small and she thrashed around all night.

Finally, on counselor number 2, her counselor suggested we try something different: put an extra bed in her room and one of us sleep there. One would sleep with her in her room on another bed on the floor. That was step one--get her to sleep in her own room again. Eventually, it worked; she got some sleep. Me? Not so much.

Step two was that once she fell asleep, we then returned to our bed. That worked... until she woke up, saw we weren’t there anymore and started screaming. Back one of us went. By then we were so tired ourselves that we might fall asleep in her room before she did--thereby not affecting any change in the right direction.

A tired mom is a short-tempered mom. A tired dad might be even worse. The house that was once so joyful and peaceful was now filled with angst, anger and just plain exhaustion. I wasn’t sleeping; my husband fell asleep in her room confounding the issue. So then we were tired and at odds. Add to that an older brother who was tired of all the fights and of his sister being such a pain. Everyone’s patience had dissolved long ago and family dynamics hit a new low. Clearly we needed more help and so did she.

Get Help

By now we had tried all of the tricks to solving this issue. Gentle bedtime routine? Check. Regular bed time? Check. Warm bath; stories; snuggles? Check, check and check. We encouraged rituals that soothed her--gave her her blanket and favorite stuffy. Played soft music--then white noise when that didn’t work. She read. We read to her. You name it, I think we tried it. At this point we realized she had some serious anxiety and we were beyond our abilities to solve the issue. So we found a new therapist to help us face this sleep demon.

Our new therapist was great--Kylie really took to her and looked forward to seeing her and, i think, to having someone of her own to talk to. One of us was still staying in her room at this point. We tried again leaving after she fell asleep. More tears. Then the doctor suggested a more gradual approach. After getting her to bed and completing our nightly, calming rituals, we (one of us) sat in her room. Not on a bed, not lying down. Sat in a chair so we would not fall asleep. Which, if I’m honest, had it’s own issues, but still.

When she fell asleep, we were supposed to move to the hallway and sit there. Slowly, ever so slowly over many nights, we moved a little farther away within the room, then into the hallway, then further down the hallway, until finally we made it to our own bedroom.

So how did our new therapist help? A few ways. She had Kylie talk about her fears and give voice to them. Apparently that sounds way easier than it is. The anxiety which Kylie felt also meant she had had a hard time voicing or admitting to the scary thoughts. So her therapist had her look at What If’s. She talked about those What If’s. For instance if she brought up a fire, we could lead her through that. “Have you ever had a fire or known anyone who did? If not, was there a reason her house might get one? Did anyone smoke or leave on the gas? No, well then was it possible no fire would happen? Same with a burglar or whatever; we learned to walk and talk her through her fears. Which sounds good and is a great starting point. But of course that alone didn’t do it, as this anxiety is not rational.

Another helpful tip was having her picture her fear and describe it. Then draw it and name it. That helps put some distance between the fear and her. Plus we could use humor and come up with ways for her to yell at it or tell it to go away; we were able to make it a little, tiny bit fun and less scary. Another winner? While we had tried relaxation and meditation apps (didn’t work for her) her therapist taped her own soothing voice in a little meditation for Kylie. Reminded her what to do, how to relax, how to help herself. We had her play that in her bed when it was a tough night. And as we got one night, it went to two, then maybe back a step-- but eventually we were able to have enough success that she set up her own goal and reward system.

She would choose how many nights she would stay alone and if she was successful, what fun thing we would do. It became hers. She was sad, mad and therefore determined to banish it. Thank God for her stubborn streak at those moments.

Lo and behold, it took. She realized she could make the sleep demon disappear all on her own. She owned it and she conquered it. And eventually, she even went on a successful sleep over again….and again...and again.

Last week she came back from two weeks away. And that is a beautiful thing.


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