Understanding parental separation anxiety

You might be familiar with the term ‘separation anxiety’, understanding it as a condition that more commonly affects children and even animals. But have you heard it used in relation to parents?

Parent and child's feet

Separation anxiety is common in children aged between six months and three years. It can be an intense, difficult time, but children will typically grow out of it. Separation anxiety in parents, however, is a little misunderstood.

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Speak to a new parent and they will likely mention how much they miss their child, how they feel guilty leaving them at nursery or with a babysitter. But in reality, parental separation anxiety is much more than missing your child; it’s feeling like there’s a piece of you missing.

It’s as though your heart is aching.

What is parental separation anxiety?

“Separation anxiety in children and/or animals is when they struggle with the absence of their primary caregiver, or close family member.” Vivien Sabel, psychotherapist and author explains. “I’ve even come across this with young children and their teachers.

“Parents, however, also struggle with strong and sometimes overwhelming feelings in relation to the potential and real absence of their children or loved ones.

“Parental separation anxiety can develop during pregnancy, postnatal or at any point during their offspring’s childhood,” says Vivien. “It could be triggered as a result of birth trauma, perinatal or postnatal anxiety/depression and existing anxiety issues, or it may simply be triggered by the act of becoming a parent.”

When do parents experience these feelings? Vivien explains, “Parents may experience acute anxiety when their child begins nursery, starts school or spends time away from the family home. This anxiety may present itself as low mood, anger or catastrophic thinking.

“However it presents itself, there are ways of managing some of these thoughts and feelings.”

Parental separation anxiety has never been a common topic for discussion. Parenting can be a sensitive subject – after all, nobody wants to be criticised on their parenting skills. But people are suffering because of this lack of discussion. Coping alone with this anxiety can be incredibly overwhelming, which in turn can impact overall health and well-being. Being a parent is exhausting enough, without feeling like you’re totally alone in the journey.

Thankfully, people are starting to talk about it. Parental separation anxiety recently hit the headlines following an interview in Happiful Magazine with Formula One heiress, Tamara Ecclestone.

In this honest interview, she discussed motherhood and living with separation anxiety.

“I’ve had more anxiety since I became a mum and it’s something I need to work on and deal with.” She told Happiful. “I was never an anxious person before I had Sophia, but now I have serious anxiety about anything happening to my daughter.”

We also spoke to Aimi, mum of two, about her experience of separation anxiety. “As a first-time mum, I didn’t really know there was a problem until my daughter was nine months old,” she said. “I knew I didn’t feel like myself from the very beginning, but I just assumed all new mums felt like that.”

How does separation anxiety feel?

Aimi recalls the first time she felt separation anxiety. “The first time I remember feeling separation anxiety was when my [first] daughter was three weeks old. I went out without her for a meal with my friends. This was the first time I had left her at home and after about 45 minutes, I started to feel odd.

“I couldn’t concentrate on the conversation, all I could think about was getting home to her. When I got home, all the love rushed through me and I cried as I held her in my arms. In hindsight, I wasn’t ready to leave her, I wasn’t ready for my life to resume as it had been before.”

Signs of parental separation anxiety can affect people in different ways, some may be more obvious, others may not notice there is a problem until it starts to affect their health.

Aimi says how she had previously suffered OCD and anxiety as a child, so she was very aware of how she felt and when something didn’t seem right. But even then, it wasn’t until her daughter was nine months old that she realised there was a problem.

But Tamara and Aimi aren’t the only ones who feel this way. A 2016 study by Pacey UK (the professional association for childcare and early years) in association with Netmums, revealed that out of 1000 mothers, 70% of mums said they worried about the extent they would miss their children. 90% reported feeling anxious about returning to work after having a child, while nearly half of mums admitted being very anxious.

The important thing to know is that you’re not alone. If you’re struggling with separation anxiety, you shouldn’t feel ashamed – you’re doing a great job. If you are experiencing parental separation anxiety, there are ways you can manage how you feel.

“When my first daughter was nine months I sought counselling. It took me a long time to realise that what I was experiencing, was anxiety” explains Aimi. “Once I took the first step, life gradually became easier. It took a lot of work, both in therapy and at home, for me to feel like a separate individual, but things are much better now.”

parental separation anxiety

How to overcome parental separation anxiety

Vivien shares her top tips for managing parental separation anxiety:

Recognise your feelings

Being aware of your feelings and understanding why they are occurring can be helpful. Denying your feelings will not support you or those around you.

Talk to other parents

It may aid you with your own feelings. Many other parents experience this too and talking about it with them will provide you with support and a release. Other parents may offer you their ideas on what works for them in combating their inner world.

Keep yourself busy

Plan activities and schedule these prior to your child’s absence. Plan to meet up with friends or do something that makes you happy. It’s likely you have been so busy being a parent finding ‘you time’ may be tricky. This could be your perfect opportunity to go and enjoy something new or to learn something new at your local college.

As a psychotherapist, I often think about Winnicott’s concept of a ‘transitional object’ (1962). Just as an infant may long for their mother or father, a parent may long for their child.

Consider keeping an item of clothing that holds the scent of your child

This way you can pick it up, smell it and feel more connected to them. Many years ago I worked with a little boy, and at the end of our work, I offered him his pick of some interesting keys. I told him that his chosen key was an object he could hold and keep for as long as he wanted.

I said that I hope it would remind him of our work and that although it may not open any real doors, it would be a key to remind him of how much good work was done. This ‘transitional object’ for him meant the world.

Try and keep your feelings of separation from your child

It’s fine for you to say you’ll miss them, but it’s not fine to project your feelings about this onto your child. Keeping a positive outlook and attitude is paramount, as you don’t want your separation anxiety transferring over to your child. This will no doubt make you feel guilty and your child feel worse – it can become a vicious cycle. Be reassuring and remain as positive as possible.

If you’re really stuck and feel unable to work through this alone, then understanding the roots of your anxiety may help.

Consider speaking to a professional

You can find a registered psychotherapist or counsellor in your local area using our directory or through your doctor. Making a commitment to understanding more of yourself, will help you and those around you.

Vivien Sabel MA Psych is a registered psychotherapist and award-winning author. She is a national and international speaker and trainer.

Her books (The Blossom Method: The Revolutionary Way To Communicate With Your Baby From Birth (a baby/parenting book) and Robot Meg: She Lives In My HEAD (a therapeutic kids’ book) are available on Amazon.

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Written by Ellen Lees
Head of Content.
Written by Ellen Lees
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