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Helping with Separation Anxiety – at Bedtime & School

Helping with Separation Anxiety – at Bedtime & School

My 6 year old daughter, Emily, had never been great separating from me.  Once I’d gone, she was fine, but the point of separation was always very hard for her, and increasingly frustrating for me.  For over a year, leaving her in at school was frequently difficult, plus separation at bedtime could be challenging too.

With school – I struggled to help her with drop offs, probably because I remembered how I felt to say goodbye to my mum when all I wanted to do was to cling on to her.  And also because I didn’t want a ‘scene’ at school – I felt uncomfortable to do a StayListening session with her there, with other parents, teachers and children around.  

With bedtimes – after a big 5 week trip to the UK, her sleep was all over the place and she was refusing to sleep in her own room (where she had previously slept happily).  I brought her into our bed to give her that extra connection at night to help her deal with the big trip we’d had, starting her 2nd year at school, and adjusting to life with a baby brother.  That worked for a while and bedtimes were OK, but her anxiety grew to the point that I couldn’t leave her alone to fall asleep in the evenings, despite being in our bed.

She said she didn’t feel safe at home and was worried that someone might come into the room and kill her.  No amount of reassurance or rational reasoning from me would dissuade her from this fear.

Something needed to shift and I needed to help her with her big, scary feelings.

We agreed in advance on a day that she was going to move back into her own room.  When that day arrived, I quickly got the baby to sleep and my husband and I were prepared that this StayListening Session was going to take up our whole evening.

We started our usual routine of teeth, hair, PJs, etc.  I read her a chapter from her book and stayed with her for a couple of minutes snuggling in her bed, followed by 2 minutes at the door, and then a couple of minutes outside her room.  When I then went upstairs to the sitting room (we have an upside down house!), she came out of her room saying that she was scared.

So I took her downstairs again and we began……

I helped her into her bed and lovingly set the limit that she was to stay in the bed and that Daddy and I would help her.  She started to say that she was scared and I reassured her again that I knew she was really safe in her room.  She started to push against me, and I set the limit that I wasn’t willing for her to hit me.  When I was stopping her from hitting me, she blurted out “You don’t care for me”.

Ah so that was her big fear

I repeatedly reassured her that I did care for her very much, that I loved her and Daddy did too.  She kept saying “No you don’t!”.  So I kept on repeating that I loved her and that we would always care for her.

“You can’t care for me when you’re dead.”

Ah – another big, huge fear coming to the surface.  So I assured her that we would make sure that someone would always care for her even when Daddy and I had died.  I kept on repeating it, to counter her continual No’s.

At times she would go quiet and move away from me.  So I would repeat the words that we or someone would always care for her.  This would result in her getting upset and starting to kick out against the wall and myself.  I could really see how much terror she had behind her resistance to absorb these reassurances.  I also felt really emotional at the thought of Evan and I dying and leaving our children behind.  I could really understand her fear as I felt very similar when I was younger and flatly refused to talk about it with my mum.

Angry and upset girlWhenever she was quiet and turned away from me, I would move closer, say the words again and try to lovingly caress her.   It always elicited an angry, frustrated response:  “Stop touching me.”  “Stop talking to me.”  “STOP TALKING!!!!!!!”  She would scream at me in frustration, anger and hurt, and she would try to kick me and bite my arm.

As she was in the middle of a huge release / cry, I realised that saying those words and moving close were the things which triggered her fears, and therefore were what I needed to do to help her with them.  It is often an issue that parents struggle with as we want to respect our children’s wishes, particularly for personal space and autonomy.  Which is what I do when she is calm and rational.  But when she is in the midst of a huge emotional storm, I want her to fully feel the terrifying feelings within a safe, loving environment.  By feeling the scary emotions with a loving, responsive adult, she is able to then move through them and be released from them.  It was precisely because there was such a huge charge around me saying those words and lovingly moving close to her, that I knew we had found the ‘sweet spot’ (as Marion Rose describes it).

So I persisted and would lovingly repeat my reassurances and my attempts at physical closeness.

After about 30 minutes, she stopped lashing out and responded to my attempt to pull her onto my lap for a cuddle.  Her tears flowed as I reassured her again that we would always love her and that someone would always, always, care for her.  This time she seemed to take those words in and the crying began to subside.

As usual when she has worked through big feelings, Emily abruptly stopped crying and started to tell us in great clarity how to do a 360 degree manoeuvre she has learnt how to do at acrobatics.  I have never heard her describe it in such detail before.  Her mind was clear – she could think straight again.  We listened and then started to joke and laugh and cuddle some more.

And then she was ready to go to sleep in her own bed, with me beside her for a few minutes before she happily and peacefully drifted off to sleep.

The effects of this cry have been far reaching.

The next 2 days, I could leave her happily in her classroom at school.  Goodbyes were fun and easy.  The third day, I said goodbye whilst I was in the car outside of the school.  She happily and confidently left the car and walked into the school grounds all by herself – all by herself!  I had given up hope of this ever happening.  And I certainly didn’t expect it to happen then.

Bedtimes have been much, much easier.  She would still understandably prefer to sleep in our bed, but the terror has significantly subsided.  There may still be more to go, but that intense fear and difficulty has gone.

The Stay Listening session was full-on.  I can often feel quite drained afterwards, in sharp contrast to Emily who is always calm, clear and bright (and in this instance, finally peacefully asleep!).  I called a friend the next day to get my support and talk about it as I had feelings around what she had been fearing. I also called my friend in celebration immediately after Emily walked confidently into school all by herself!  I wouldn’t be able to listen so clearly to my children if I, too, didn’t get support and feel my scary, frustrating or sad feelings in a safe environment.

This incident highlighted to me, yet again, how powerful it can be to dive right in and really listen to our children’s fears and emotions.  Bribery, punishment, pleading or ‘disciplining’ would never have uncovered and then released Emily’s deepest, scariest fears.  StayListening can seem time-consuming, exhausting and just plain hard work.  But the rewards are extraordinary and incredibly worthwhile.


Are your children also struggling with separation anxiety or big fears?  I’d love to hear what’s going on for your family and whether you have any big ’emotional projects’ you feel you need to do.  As ever, if you would like some support around them, please contact me – I’d be really happy to help.





2 Responses to Helping with Separation Anxiety – at Bedtime & School

  1. I found this article so helpful as not only did it resonate with my own daughter’s separation anxiety, but it made explicit the approach that I would like to take moving forward and made me feel supported in that decision. Thank you for sharing it!

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