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Do I Have Parental Separation Anxiety?

Dropping your child off at college or to summer camp should be an exciting time for parents and children, but what if it creates major feelings of anxiety and fear—not for your child but for you?

You may have a case of parental separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is often something we consider when we see a tiny child with a death grip on their parents’ legs at school drop-off, but it can also impact adults. With many families being connected at the hip during the pandemic, some parents are having a hard time saying goodbye when their kids go back to school and out in the world.

“As parents, our brains are wired to look out for danger and keep our children safe,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “Unfortunately, our brains haven’t evolved yet to tell the difference between real-life and perceived dangers. This lack of knowing or control can create high levels of anxiety in some parents.”

Do I have parental separation anxiety?

Whether its feelings of loneliness after your child flies the coop or overwhelming guilt when you leave your baby at childcare after maternity leave, parental separation anxiety can affect people in a myriad of ways. Some signs may be more obvious, while others you may not notice until they start affecting your life and mental health.

Here are a few general signs to watch out for:

  • Excessive worrying and catastrophic thinking
  • High levels of anxiety, depression
  • Unusual distress and panic attacks
  • Feelings of anger
  • Physical symptoms when separated from your child (headaches, nausea, stomachaches)
  • Incessant need to know where your child is at all times

“To be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, these symptoms must impact your daily functions and continue for at least 6 months,” Dr. Fox said.

Am I at risk for separation anxiety?

While life events like starting school or going off to college can create difficult periods of adjustment for children and adults, some adults may be more likely to experience separation anxiety.

“Oftentimes those with separation anxiety have other co-existing mental health conditions, such as social anxiety, panic disorders, OCD or agoraphobia,” Dr. Fox said. “Other risk factors include significant life changes, such as divorce, death of a family member or a global pandemic, or growing up with overbearing parents.”

However, it’s important to note that not everyone with these risk factors will develop separation anxiety. As well, not everyone with separation anxiety has these risk factors.

How can I manage my separation anxiety?

If you’re experiencing separation anxiety and your symptoms are unmanageable, it may be worth contacting a licensed behavioral health specialist for support.

Therapy, either individual or in a group setting, will help you focus on processing the emotions and loss of control you’re feeling regarding the separation,” Dr. Fox said. “Parents can learn valuable techniques to help reduce their anxiety and fears.”

In addition to therapy, Dr. Fox shared these other tips to help make goodbyes easier for you:

Stay busy. When the kids leave, focus on things you enjoy doing or that need to be taken care of before they come home. Have things to look forward to and structure your day so you can feel more in control.

Reach out for support. Get together with friends and family and lean on those who can empathize and understand what you’re going through.

Don’t pass your anxiety to your child. Separation can be difficult for you but do your best to mitigate those feelings in front of your child. Make the transition as fun as possible for your child, whether it’s starting school or sleeping over at a friend’s house.

Give yourself space for your feelings. There is no right or wrong way to feel. Allow yourself to feel upset if you need to feel upset.

Practice relaxation techniques. Deep breathing, meditation and yoga can help with feelings of anxiety when fear comes up.

If you feel like you could benefit from speaking with a licensed behavioral health specialist, please call 800-254-4357 or visit bannerhealth.com to find a specialist near you. Saying goodbye can be hard, but it doesn’t mean you’re alone.

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