Monday, October 25, 2010

Separation Anxiety

The problem with a child's separation anxiety is that the more they scream and cling to us, begging us not to leave, the less we actually want them around.  At least that's how it is my case.

I love Elana deeply.  She is my first born, the light of my life, the love of my heart, and the reason for the white hairs that are prematurely sprouting from my head.  Elana suffers from severe separation anxiety.  This started approximately three years and six months ago (she was born February 2007; you do the math) and waxes and wanes with the new moon.  One day she will be the happiest child, bouncing into preschool with a smile on her face and ready to paint her body in every color of the rainbow.  The next day she is digging her fingernails in my arms and screaming at the top of her lungs "I will NOT stay at preschool."  And boy, does she mean it.
(Photo courtesy of Karin Asensio.)

Everyone says- "Don't worry.  They only cry for a few minutes then they are happy as clams."  Well, Elana is more of a hyena than a clam.  Her episode can last hours, and I am not exaggerating!  Last year, while Elana was attending our loving co-op preschool, the director (who had been working with preschool age children for the last 120 years), called me back to school saying "I have never done this before, but please take her home."  When I got to school, Elana looked up at me sheepishly from the director's lap and immediately began singing and giggling.  Part of me wanted to hug her and smother her with kisses, the other part just wanted to smother her.

My husband offers this advice: "She just really loves you.  It's sweet.  Let her stay home."  I wonder how sweet he would find it to have a 33-pound boil with lungs growing out of his right leg?

Obviously my husband is of no use, so I turned to the experts for advice.
  • Dr. Sears advises to spend more one-on-one time with her.  I do think a lot.  In fact I do this so much that Maisy (our 18-month-old) is practically raising herself, the poor kid.  I mean how many year-and-a-half-olds know how to fix their own breakfast?
  • Parenting expert Kimberley Clayton Blaine suggests taking the "blankie"to school.  Unfortunately, Elana's blankie is a pacifier and I absolutely detest when a 3-year-old wanders around with a plug stuck in her mouth.  Ted says that it is not that bad, but I have major anxiety about Elana never giving it up.  I have visions of her at 17 apologizing to her boyfriend (or girlfriend) that she can't make out right now, she needs her paci time. 
  • Brianne Collecchio, an early childhood education specialist, recommends giving your child control over as much as possible.  Would you like an apple or a banana in your lunch?  Would you like to wear the pink dress with the flowers, the pink dress with the butterflies, the pink dress with the ribbons, or the pink dress with the paint stains?  The more the child has control over, the more she will be willing to accept the things she doesn't.  
  • All the experts agree- be positive, confident and brief when saying goodbye.  Well, I royally screwed this up today.  The 45-minute drop off that ended with me pulling out a few of my eyelashes was not exactly brief nor positive. 

At the height of Elana's sleep anxiety I consulted with her pediatrician. Her answer was a quote from Pinkalicious "You get what you get and you don't get upset." Gee thanks for the advice Doctor, maybe Fancy Nancy has some pearls of wisdom, too.

After devouring every URL with the words "separation", "anxiety", and "toddler" associated with it, yesterday Ted and I consulted with a local child psychiatrist on the best way to deal with Elana's anxiety issues.  She had lots of helpful ideas including praising her for the positive behavior, like when she goes to school with no fuss, or when she doesn't scream at 130 decibels.  She also suggested to not take the behavior so personally and hinted that I might be projecting my own anxieties from childhood. Well, isn't that what parents are supposed to do? How else are the children going to grow up with a healthy does of overbearing mother issues? 

Most surprisingly she mentioned that the behavior may not be anxiety, but manipulation.  There is a simple test for this, if you are able to buy your way out of a tantrum with a new toy, ice cream treat, or a pony, then the kid is a master manipulator.  I tested this theory with Elana and her going to preschool fits; if she could manage two days without freaking out at drop-off I would get her a new princess doll.  She immediately calmed down and said "I need Sleeping Beauty," before kissing me on the cheek and skipping off to the art table.

The therapist's final suggestion was for Ted and me to sit down and concoct a plan of action for each of Elana's major obstacles.  Here is our new preschool plan:
  1. Calmly explain to Elana the schedule for the day, what will happen, when I will pick her up, and so on.
  2. Help Elana to find a special transitional object for when she gets sad.  We are using special heart stickers from the book The Kissing Hand.
  3. At school quickly help Elana get engaged in an activity then have a short and sweet good-bye. 
  4. If she starts to get anxious reassure her that she is going to do great and show confidence in both her and your ability to leave. 
  5. If all else fails, buy the teachers a gift certificate to a local spa.  They will need the release after listening to the Elana's excruciatingly loud screeching. 


    1 comment:

    1. Rhianna, this was really good information......and hilarious! xoxo Keep up the rad posts! Aiden