Ask Scary Mommy: My Kid's Separation Anxiety Is Slowly Killing Me

by Cassandra Stone
Scary Mommy and Sasiistock/Getty

Ask Scary Mommy is Scary Mommy’s new advice column, where our team of “experts” answers all the questions you have about life, love, body image, friends, parenting, and anything else that’s confusing you.

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Dear Scary Mommy,

My oldest daughter, who is 6, has some serious separation anxiety. She used to have it as a toddler, but grew out of it around the age of 4. Obviously, the last 18 months have been A LOT for everyone—and my kiddo is no exception. I noticed the anxiety starting to rear its ugly head again last winter and I hoped it would let up a bit once we were outside again and doing more things with others. It hasn’t. I can’t go to the store, go for a walk, or even go to the bathroom (sometimes, not always) without her panicking about where I’m at. I’d usually give in and just take her with me on errands, but now that delta variant numbers are rising like crazy I don’t want to take her anywhere unnecessarily. Mostly, it’s really bad at bedtime. She cries to the point of trembling sometimes because she’s so scared to go to sleep (of what, I have no idea…she says monsters, but I don’t really think that’s it). She wants to sleep with me. We don’t usually give in on that one, but occasionally, we let her climb in bed with us on the weekends. My husband and I are as patient as we can be with her and we never shame her or yell at her about it, but I need some other ideas to help here so I don’t lose it. She starts in-person school again in a couple of weeks, and I’m hoping that will help because, oddly, she’s a very outgoing extrovert and gravitates toward other kids easily. When she’s playing with others, she doesn’t give a hoot about me. But when she’s not, well, her separation anxiety is seriously toying with my sanity.

Oh, mama. That’s A LOT. For you and for her. You don’t mention whether the virus is something that she’s affected by directly, so I’m going to assume that she picks up what she hears from you and your husband and on television, etc., and is informed in an age-appropriate way. She’s old enough to understand that this virus is making a lot of people really sick, and that it’s been going on for a long time. Of course she has anxiety. I’d almost be concerned if she had awareness about the pandemic and didn’t have some sort of anxiety.

Data shows that separation anxiety in kids has been really common during COVID, even with how much it’s made us all homebound and around one another. She probably missed her little friends and her normal routine and clung to you because you make her feel safe and loved.

Here’s what you can try. Before you go to the store or have to leave to run errands (and you shouldn’t feel bad about doing these tasks alone), prepare her ahead of time. And instead of saying something like, “Mommy’s going to the store, okay?” you can try this template instead: “Mommy’s going to the store, then I’m going to mail a letter at the post office, then I’ll be home and we’ll play in the backyard and share a snack.” Rattle off a series of things you’re going to do so she knows what to expect, and has something to look forward to while you’re gone. Chances are, she busies herself just fine—out of sight, out of mind. But this will help her feel more confident about you leaving, because you have a fun little thing planned for when you come back.

As for bedtime, keep a routine. A simple lineup of brushing teeth, washing up, getting pajamas on and reading a book is more than fine—and this helps her know what comes next/what to expect, too. When it’s time for her to Actually Lie Down In Bed so you can Leave The Room, try reciting a bedtime affirmation (or prayer, if that floats your boat). Learn and recite it together.

Here’s a blog that has a ton of good ones. They’re sweet little confidence boosters that can help her get into a good mindset before sleep.

I bet you’ll see an improvement once she gets into a school routine, too. Especially if she loves going to school and making new friends. While this school year certainly won’t be anxiety-free for anyone, she’ll probably love it regardless. Try all of these things and get into a groove with them, and hopefully, they help you (and your sanity). You’re doing great, I promise.