Separation Anxiety

By Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

Because parents and only children are so tightly bonded and mean so much to each other, separation can cause fears on both sides of the relationship.

Typically, when parents think about separation, the anxiety that comes to mind has to do with learning to tolerate distance and absence from each other, but this is only one form of the problem among many that I see in counseling. This is the first in a series of articles that will explore six common separation anxieties that can occur in only child families. These common anxieties can be classified as follows:

  1. Safety Anxiety: from a separation of place or distance between parents and only child.
  2. Disagreement Anxiety: from a separation of opinions or wants between parents and only child.
  3. Rejection Anxiety: from a separation of identity or lifestyle between parents and only child.
  4. Independence Anxiety: from a separation of responsibility or self-support between parents and only child.
  5. Loyalty Anxiety: from a separation of love or commitment between parents and only child.
  6. Departure Anxiety: from a separation caused by a parent’s failing health or death.

The first anxiety that parents and child probably confront is safety anxiety. Will the child be okay without his/her parents around? One of the hardest parts of parenting is letting go, releasing the child to the risks of decision making, exposing the child to the hazards of life away from home. Parents wonder if the child is ready? Will the child have difficulty adjusting? What if the child gets hurt physically or emotionally? If that happens, is it the parent’s fault for not preparing the child well enough? Perhaps they should have been more thorough about checking out the situation into which they sent the child. Would it have been a better and safer choice to hold the child back longer?

All of these questions can haunt the conscientious parent.

Parenting an only child is emotionally intensive. It typically requires an enormous amount of thought: self-questioning is hard to avoid. Responsibility weighs heavily on parents’ hearts and minds because everything they have to give is invested in one child: “If anything bad happens to our only child, we’d never forgive ourselves.” If something bad does happen, guilt can exact a cruel toll. It’s hard for parents to limit their sense of liability when a child is harmed. Parents have to remember that they have no control over the child’s innate characteristics (some children are impulsive risk takers, while others are careful and thoughtful), or over circumstances that occur out in the world (chance situations and influences of friends, for example). It takes courage to parent an only child, and more often than not the name for that courage is “braving the separation anxiety that results from letting go.”

Going off to a friend’s house overnight, being dropped off with a sitter when parents go out, starting daycare or school, going to camp or college, moving into an apartment, relocating to a new city, taking a job, are all common separations. Parents and the only child must learn to tolerate physical distance between and absence from each other. Gaining sufficient trust and confidence to make these kinds of separations often takes time and effort to learn.

“Safety anxiety” at any of these points is normal. Physical distance can feel like social and emotional distance, threatening a loss of easy access and security. Homesickness is a common ailment. Questions that can worry the only child include: 

  • “Will they miss me when I’m gone?” 
  • “Will they be there when I return?” 
  • “Will they be okay without me?” 
  • “Will I be okay without them?” 
  • “Suppose I need to talk to them when I’m away?” 
  • “Suppose I get into trouble and they’re not around?” 
  • “Suppose there’s no one there to care for me the way I’m cared for at home?”

When the child’s anxiety about comfort and safety is coupled with the parents’ fears for the child’s safety, absence and distance can become frightening. Indeed, anxiety on one side can arouse anxiety on the other. An only child who experiences significant safety anxiety starting school, for example, frequently has parents who fear letting go. Typically, these are well meaning parents who offer reassurances to the child and themselves in ways that only make both sets of fears much worse.

“That’s not true,” objects a parent who then describes that the only child is unwilling to let go. “We’ve gotten special permission from the counselor to let our child call us at lunch. We take our child to the classroom door each day to prevent having to walk down the hall alone. We’ve even given our child a “magic” coin to hold to stop the fear, a lucky piece I used to carry. We’ve taken every measure to make our child feel secure at school, but the anxiety hasn’t gotten any better. What else can we do?”

What parents can do is stop scaring the child with safety precautions. Such well intended efforts can often heighten a child’s fear. It’s rather like the parents who wanted to help their child feel safe at home after a neighborhood burglary. They placed new locks on the doors, bolted the windows, installed a new alarm system, and bought a guard dog to patrol the premises. Such reassurances and protections only convinced the child that the danger was very real. When parents act like there is something to be afraid of, the child learns to be afraid. But when parents normalize the separation, accept the fear, and treat the necessary adjustment with trust and confidence, the child will finally learn that also.

Parents make safety anxiety worse by: 

  • Being unduly reassuring 
  • Taking unusual measures to protect the child 
  • Inflaming the child’s worries with their own 
  • Becoming impatient, critical or angry at the child for feeling afraid.

There is no sin in feeling afraid, particularly of experiences one has not had before. For many children, particularly only children, physical separation from parents can threaten loss of control, closeness, and comfort. When it does, parents need to honor the fear and recognize that it takes courage to overcome being afraid. The child must call on this personal resource to brave his or her way through a challenging change.

Parents can help the child suffering from safety anxiety by explaining, “We know you feel scared. At times everyone, including us, feels scared. There is nothing wrong with being afraid. Some fear warns us of danger. It says, “Watch out!” Other fear, like being apart from us at school, says, “I’m not used to this yet.” This kind of fear is increased by running from it. Facing the fear reduces it. We believe that you have the courage to face your fear and overcome it. We know that when you do, you will feel very good about yourself.”