Tuesday Topic: When Separation Brings Panic

This week’s Tuesday Topic is a question from Kelly.

My question is about separation anxiety. We have an almost 3 year old son, adopted internationally at 13 months.  He has such fear of being babysat or going to church Sunday School, even for a few hours with someone he knows well, that for 3-6 weeks afterward he will have huge fear reactions, terribly interrupted sleep, and be in a general kind of panic.  This has happened since the first time we had him stay with someone for a couple hours, but he is finally able to verbalize his fears recently.
It doesn’t matter if the sitter comes to our house, or if he’s at theirs, if there are other kids to play with, people he adores, etc.   He will tell us that he understands we are going to the dentist or dinner, etc. and that we will be back “because Mama and Daddy always come back”, but the same horrible reactions happen every time.  Needless to say we only do this when absolutely necessary.  Date nights – non-existent, hair – needs to be cut, doctor – now I bring him with me, morning women’s Bible Study – not a chance, respite care – impossible.
But – he’s an amazing kid and we love him to pieces, can’t imagine life without him.
What advice do you have for Kelly?  I’m sure some of you have experienced extreme reactions to separation. What did you do to help your child?  How did you take care of yourself?
We would love to hear from you and I know Kelly will appreciate your thoughts. Please leave a comment to lend her some wisdom and support.
If you have a Tuesday Topic you would like me to share, please email me at [email protected] and put “Tuesday Topic” in the subject line.
Have a great day, friends.  It is a big homeschool day for me; I’m hoping for a fruitful one.
Lisa

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

17 Comments

  1. Luana
    November 27, 2012

    I recommend getting a digital voice recorder and recording your voice saying phases of appropriate behaviors (i.e., "You are brave and quiet when mommy leaves the house to run errands. Yoou feel secure and know that mommy will come back soon." etc.)

    Have your son listen to this for a few minutes (2-3) two or three times a day USING HEADPHONES in a quiet place.

    Make sure you facial expressions and exterior attitude shows confidence and assurance (even if you are crumbling on the inside). Sometimes too much empathy can backfire.

    I agree with Rebekah and think it's very important to continue your date nights and appointments. This is life and although the action reaps negative behaviors in your son afterwards, he must see that you do return and are nurturing you other relationships. I would recommend starting with just a quick get-away 15-30 minutes for a long while, then bump it up a bit at a time.

    I would also recommend preparing your sound (matter-of factly) ahead of your departure time.

    Will pray for you, Kelly.

    Luana

    Reply
    1. Luana
      November 28, 2012

      sorry, meant *son*

      Reply
  2. Debbie
    November 27, 2012

    Sorry, no wisdom here, but sure would like to hear the answers! We are experiencing the same issues with our 20 month old foster child we've had for 9 months.

    Reply
  3. Sarah K
    November 27, 2012

    Can you give him some sort of digital timer that counts down until you'll be back? When he's old enough to tell time, it might help (and distract) him to have a watch and know what time you will be back. (Of course, then you would have to be very very careful to be back when you said you would be!)

    Reply
  4. Rebekah
    November 27, 2012

    Our adopted son is older (10) and has separation anxiety. He would take it so far to act out after a date night that we quit for a while. We sought out mentors because we missed our date night! He told us to continue date nights and leaving him. It will help him to see a healthy marriage between us and continue to go/come back. It was at first very hard for me because I knew he was in agony. But I am a person too, and I need time to myself. I think when I realized that if I don't get some respite time for myself, I will have nothing to give my children. I have to say, that I had horrible separation anxiety as a child (I was not adopted) and it eventually wore off like in high school. I know sad. I had my mom coming and picking me up at friends house in middle school in the middle of the night. I also in 7th grade had it really bad and refused to go to school until my mom made me by dressing me and taking me, dropping me off upset. I am glad now that she did that. I needed it. I have no magic formula. I wish I did! I just want you to know it may be his personality rather than an adoption issue. Hugs mama!

    Reply
  5. Jess
    November 27, 2012

    Our son was adopted internationally at close to the same age as yours (he was somewhere between 9 and 14 months) and has really struggled with separation anxiety. He's now 3, and we can leave him with people he's comfortable with and it will be okay, but he'll usually have difficult behavior for us afterward.

    For us the thing that helped the most has just been time. We started out very slowly, leaving him for a short amount of time. The more he saw us leave and then come back, the safer he felt. He still has a lot of difficulty being left in a nursery-type situation at church, or with a new baby-sitter, but it's getting better. We talk about it in detail beforehand:

    "Mary is coming to baby-sit you tonight. You will have pizza for dinner with your brothers, then you can play a game with Mary. When it's bedtime she will put your pajamas on, give you your milk, brush your teeth and put you to bed. When you wake up in the morning, Mommy and Daddy will be back! Mary will keep you safe. She's very nice and will be in charge while we're gone." Repeat about a million times before Mary actually comes. 😉

    Hope your little guy starts doing better. I know how draining it can be!

    Reply
  6. debbie
    November 27, 2012

    Our youngest had huge separation anxiety when we brought her home at 20 months in June. She only wanted me. She would not even go to my husband! But I guess I instinctively agreed with the therapist above. First, what better way to feel safe than to know each time your mom leaves, she comes back! And second, my relationship with my husband comes first. And third, if we adopt more she will need to have a sitter when we go to China!

    So after five weeks home, I started leaving her with a sitter for an hour a week. She cried for awhile and then cried again when I got home. After a few weeks the crying stopped within a minute or so of me leaving. I used the same sitter every time. We are up to four hours now for running errands and date nite. There are some residual effects such as a little crankiness the next day, but overall she's fine. She still cries when I leave and I don't see that stopping any time soon. But I can hear her stop crying when the door shuts behind me.

    I do think it is personality as well. Our other adopted child LOVES having babysitters.

    Reply
  7. Katie May
    November 27, 2012

    We have a 2 1/2 year old son (biological, not adopted) who has struggled with anxiety since he was a baby. Our son's overall behavior and sleep was greatly affected by us being gone. We specifically only use babysitting for date nights right now as that is a non-negotiable for us at least twice a month. Otherwise, we both take turns being "home" so the other can get "out." Currently, we still cannot leave him in any group childcare situations. We have discovered that it is more than just separation anxiety, but also environmental anxiety. It has helped us learn which environments add anxiety. As a result we choose not to leave him (without us) in environments that bring anxiety. As a final word, my husband and I still continue to lead retreats a few weekends out of the year. If we leave for those weekends, we choose to leave him with the people he is most secure with (his grandparents) and in his most secure environment (his home), and then we also prepare ourselves for the behavioral struggle (extreme meltdowns) and sleep struggle (a couple weeks of interrupted sleep) that will come as a result of our absense during those weekends. I hope this helps!

    Reply
  8. Rhonda
    November 27, 2012

    This sounds like a painful situation for everyone. I encourage you to play games like peek-a-boo and hide and seek that help him to see in a safe setting that people go away and come back. When you do leave, give him a picture of yourself or some object that will remind him of you to hold onto while you are away. Try leaving for short periods of time and returning on time first. I also like the other persons suggestion of having a clock that will show him visually that the time is getting shorter before your return and the seconds tick off. I have heard of clocks that are made for children that don't know how to tell time that utilize a color scheme that shows the passing of time. It kind of reminds me of our relationship with the Lord when we are wondering where He is. I find that when I can remind myself of His faithfulness through reading His word, listening to music about Him, or seeing Him at work around me, I do better. Remember the Lord is with each of you and this will get better;-)

    Reply
  9. amy
    November 27, 2012

    Our two adopted children also had periods of separation anxiety. For respite – we took turns with each other and let the other have some friend time or alone time (for me, or for my husband) (and before we may get criticism about hubby-wife time — they go to bed around 7:30 and we have all evening together almost every night). Otherwise we figured we could give them a solid year of no other caretakers. At this point, since your child has been home for so long, I believe you probably know him best – and what you probably need to do is listen to your gut and your dear friends who know you and your situation. In our home after the year we began to go out for sometimes as little as 10 to 20 minutes (just for a walk). Then we started going for a half hour. Then we had them go in the nursery at church ( I stayed in the nursery the first dozen times or more). Baby steps. It helped when we brought home child #2 because child #1 was always a known figure and, albeit irritating at times, a great comfort for #2. God bless you as you walk through this challenge!

    Reply
  10. shannoncl
    November 27, 2012

    I don't know if maybe you've tried these tactics already? Try sticking with one or two people he knows well. Make sure they are people he's comfortable being around, when you are with him too. For example have them visit often, if even for 5 -10 minutes at a time. Most always with fun playful interaction with you and him. The first time you leave him with this person, stick to 2 minutes- maybe just to get the mail. (tell him in detail- without unintended foreboding tones- exactly what you are doing). Then up it to 15 or so- borrow cookies from a neighbor? and he gets one upon return. Up the length of time as you see fit. It always helps my guy if he knows and can picture where I will be and what I'll be doing— sometime needing a refresher even after 3 years. (for example every once and a while he needs to see the band play and people walk into church before he's comfortable going downstairs to the childrens program. As he has some experience in this traumatic event of momma leaving— it may take a while to become a new habit. And at first it may be more trouble than its worth – but in the long run… it isn't just about 'momma getting a break" (necessity for family health) its also and perhaps easier to think of this as – teaching him how to cope. And maybe- you will find, in your momma's heart, he isn't ready. And maybe, you'll find he can do more than he though. (ps- I also find it helpful to sort of 'cross train' during new learning things- for example giving him a new confidence building activity, like gymnastics or something like that)

    Reply
  11. Elizabeth
    November 27, 2012

    My feeling is that the personality of the caregiver matters a lot. While almost any adult will keep your son safe, fed and reasonably entertained, it may take a special connection with a very special someone in order for him to feel okay about you being gone. I've seen it happen, and I hope that person finds you!

    Reply
  12. Judy
    November 27, 2012

    Sorry this is long! I'm a long time reader but seldom post – writing short posts is not my gift. I'll break it into several posts.

    We continue to deal with "this" but I've found that "this" is NOT separation anxiety – rather I would more accurately label it abandonment anxiety. In our experience it is not about separation – it is about the lasting affects of abandonment (ie, sudden change or changes in caretakers/parents, etc). My child, and maybe your son, has an automatic fear/anxiety when Mom and Dad leave that they will not come back. It's all tied in with early memories not being verbal-based but emotional/feeling based and automatic when the situation re-occurs. (maybe it would be labeled as PTSD and maybe not but it is similar in that the brain automatically reacts) Even adults brains often work along the lines of "if A, then B will happen" – the difference is that we can apply logic and have adult coping skills when our brains react this way. We can often control our emotions and behavior. Because it is not separation anxiety, we've found that the suggested separation anxiety solutions are NOT a good fit – and often they do harm and make it harder for the child. And yes, there is a very fine line between taking care of Mom and Dad and doing what our child needs.

    For my child I had to purposefully watch and figure out what situations/people/environments were too hard, which were a challenge, and which were do-able. I also learned, over time, what helped and what did not. I was blessed with other parents who said -stick to your plan – don't worry what others think/say/do. I "just do" what I know will work – sometimes I talk to the person in charge ahead of time and sometimes not. If I act confident and just quietly stay I've found most people will not say anything and I remind myself that my child is much more important than what they are thinking.

    Part 2 – what we did specifically to come.

    Reply
  13. Judy
    November 27, 2012

    – here is part two – what we did specifically.

    My child came home at less than 1 year old but we were her 5th set of caretakers. At 9 years, her mind will still jump to the emotions of being left, but we have worked hard to give her coping skills. And there are still things that are "too hard". So we either don't do them or we do them with accommodations. And you know what, that is perfectly ok – she is a wonderful kid. Like anyone, she has a few challenges in addition to her gifts. They are just different than some of her friends challenges. Karen Purvis and others have talked alot about pre-verbal memories and their affect on the brain. It's also helpful to read about adults with PTSD and what they experience and how they deal with it.

    When my daughter was little I found activities/places that allowed Mom or Dad to stay. Gymnastics I sat 3 feet away. (just sat there quietly – no interference with class – she just needed me there – not in the waiting area). We had a pre-school drop-off routine that did not vary. She learned to say something to her teacher and her teacher would pray with her (and that greatly helped – honestly it surprised me how much her knowing she could ask for this helped.) For Sunday School, sometimes it was evident that it was too much and we took her into church with us (and sometimes wound up in the lobby). I learned that it helped for her to be there early and to let the other kids arrive after her – that made it "do-able". But singing time was too much – too chaotic on top of the anxiety. So I quietly went and sat in the back and she sat with me. Still allowed her to participate but we didn't interrupt the flow of things. I learned that transitions to new teachers were very hard – so we always prepared/talked about it/met teachers, etc. Anytime I went in with her I still expected her to participate to the best of her ability and I did not interupt, etc. Starting from about when she was 5, we started talking and praying about how and why her brain works the way it does. There were and still sometimes are lots of tears about it. It helped that she began to slowly see that all the kids in SS had their own challenges – just sometimes they are not as visible. She does not do sleepovers with even grandparents – that is too hard. She does not sleep in cousin's room when we stay with them (she sleeps with us). We just say "oh she sometimes talks in her sleep and we don't want to wake you up" and then change the topic. We just learned that even sleepovers at our house act as a trigger – not sure why. So we are slowly talking about other options. We've instituted some anxiety coping skills – there some great tips in children's books about OCD that are good for anxiety in general – "put it in Mama's box", blow it into the balloon and then let it go, slow breathing (this it almost still too hard for her), etc. I've learned to act sooner rather than later or the anxiety will ramp up quickly and then it is much harder to deal with.

    We did work from the beginning to get to the point where she was ok with Dad or Mom so that we could do some things. time for a haircut, go to the library, go to ladies group or fellowship, etc. She was an "only" until two years ago so pretty much was always with one or the other of us (including dr visits, haircuts, etc – make a bag of "stuff to do"). Staying with grandparents was not possible until age 5 or so and still only for short day visits – not at night. Or if is someone (a teen) she really admires she does ok. As long as it is not nighttime.

    I do want to say while the abandonment anxiety is still there (and makes me cry for her), it has gotten easier as we've learned alot of the triggers, learned some accommodations that usually work, have some coping methods that she can – sometimes – ask for before I think about it, and – a biggie – she is old enough to talk about it. There are still some hard and almost too hard times. What works for one child and family does not work for another. But I read alot of blogs, parenting forums, etc. And pick and try things, and slowly she is learning to deal with it and use her coping skills.

    Hugs to you and praying, Judy

    Reply
    1. Leah
      November 27, 2012

      Judy,
      Thank you for your detailed sharing. It is helpful to remember that our kids always have the "Jaws" theme music playing in the back ground.
      Leah

      Reply
    2. Abbey
      November 28, 2012

      Great post, Judy. I fully support your conclusion that this is not typical "separation" anxiety, but a deep-seated "abandonment" anxiety. Our son, home 14 months (and now nearly 3) suffers tremendously from this. It is very difficult. Having had a bio son with extreme "separation" anxiety, I can say that I can see the difference between the two. And it does make my heart hurt for our little guy. And it also makes me half crazy, because our life simply cannot look like what it could if he did not struggle in this way. We have had to embrace this as part of the cross we bear daily, and have had to simply accept that there are many things we simply cannot do during this season, and perhaps for a very very long time. In our case, our son struggles with general anxiety as well, which makes it all the more necessary to have a break from him here and there. I am a drill sergeant about afternoon rest time for this reason. All this said, my husband and I had committed to go on a 5 night trip several months ago. We are coming up on the time to leave, just a week away, and I am nervous for what my mom could experience and what our fall-out might be. We are doing the best we can, in terms of careful preparation for him, and he will remain in our home with his siblings and schedule in place. But I think the cost could be significant. We are praying hard.

      Reply
  14. Karmin
    April 4, 2013

    I know I'm super late getting in on this, but thought I'd offer my suggestion. Beyond what's already been said (you know your child and situation, and I have no idea what of this you've tried and/or whether tell work for y'all), this is my suggestion. To put it in perspective, I have adopted 4 kids, 3 separate additions to the family, who have struggled with this on varying levels and exhibited it in different ways.

    – be a parrot; say over and over and over what's going to happen and have the child repeat it back to you over and over and over
    – be in the room/within eye sight for awhile at things such as Sunday School, karate, etc. Leave for short periods of time "I'm going potty. Mommy will be right back." Working up to "I'm going to get a drink at the gas station. Mommy will be right back." And eventually "I'm going to my worship service; Mommy will be back at 11:05 when it is over."
    – send a family photo album of all of you; include pictures of you and your husband doing whatever you'll be doing when you're away from him (we did this for my daughter at daycare when I used to work… "Olivia is eating lunch. Daddy is eating lunch. Mommy is eating lunch," accompanied by photos of us eating lunch at our job. Daddy at his work desk, mommy in her classroom, daddy in his car, etc.; her daycare provider would read it with her daily, then leave it out so she could grab it any time she wanted to… this was at age 2).
    – take them on a tour of where I'll be (sanctuary, office, movie theater, etc.) so they have a frame of reference and it's not some ambiguous, possibly-made-up destination.

    Reply

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