How to Cope With Separation Anxiety as a Single Parent

Learn How to Say Good-Bye Without Fear or Anxiety

A mom hugs her son good-bye.
Learn how to ease separation anxiety when saying good-bye. Photo © Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Separation anxiety isn't just something kids feel. Parents experience it, too! And how you deal with your own emotions as you part -- whether it's for a weekend visit or at the entrance to day care -- will greatly influence how your children feel, act, and adjust.

Dillon asks: I'm a fairly new single parent. It's been three months since we separated, and I still find that it's physically and emotionally painful to be apart from my 18-month-old son. My ex and I try to be civil with one another, but it's still difficult. Our son seems especially reluctant to transition from one parent to the other after any type of extended visit. Whether it's me or my ex, he doesn't want to leave the parent he's been with for 3-4 days, and he starts crying uncontrollably. This makes me feel so bad for him, especially when he's leaving me since I'm having a really hard time being apart from him at all. Inside, I'm falling to pieces at these moments, but I try to hold it together for my little guy. Is there anything we can do as parents to help him through this? Is it something he'll outgrow, or is this what joint custody is going to be like for us? We just want to do the right thing for him.

First, let me say that the separation anxiety you're experiencing is not uncommon. And it's visceral. When you say that you feel it physically and emotionally, you're spot on. Elizabeth Stone said that to have a child is "...to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” I believe that's particularly true during visitation transfers and custody exchanges. The sensation is absolutely physical!

Regarding what to do, here are some suggestions:

  • Consider his developmental stage. Your son is at an age where he's realizing that he's separate from those around him, which can feel both exciting and frightening at the same time. So he may be, understandably, more clingy. Add to that the transitions between each home, and the effect can be even more intense. As a parent, just being aware of where he is developmentally can increase your patience and understanding exponentially. Trust that what he's experiencing right now is part of a bigger picture. It doesn't mean that drop-offs will always be this difficult.
  • Project calmness. You and everyone else who's caring for him have the responsibility to teach your son that he's safe during these transitions. As parents, we might feel that panicky "I'm not ready to say good-bye yet" feeling, which our kids sense -- except they don't know that's why we're sending out that vibe. So to your son, it might feel like there's really something to be upset about. To counter that, try to acknowledge what you're feeling. Simply saying to yourself, "This is separation anxiety" can help to prevent those emotions from leaking out unchecked.
  • Create a routine. Invent a goodbye ritual that feels good to both of you. I used to say "Catch 'ya later" to my son, and when my daughter was little, I'd ask her if she wanted a hug, a kiss, or a high-five. For both of them, having that ritual helped to provide some structure during those goodbye moments.
  • Gird yourself. Practice steeling yourself for the good-bye. Especially in the beginning, it can feel awful, even when it's just for one night. But keep in mind that your resolve to not be anxious in that moment will teach your son that he's safe and there's nothing to worry about. But it takes a lot of practice to get there -- and it really is hard. I don't want to diminish that. It's hard not to cling (ourselves) when we're saying goodbye, but acting like it's a normal, routine part of the day, combined with a ritual that works for both of you, can really help.
  • "Fake it till you make it." You won't feel calm, especially early on, so you just have to start acting like you're not bothered until you can get to the point where it feels okay -- and you'll get there. It may help to have on standby someone you can call and vent to, even just for five minutes. It's not about holding it in indefinitely; just in front of him for now.

    Finally, consider keeping a journal, too, where you can record your thoughts and your progress. Learning to overcome your separation anxiety during transitions between your house and your ex's will get better. You may even reach a point where you can enjoy the time apart. But as you adjust to the routine, being intentional about tending to your own self-care will help you cope and even look to the future with positive expectations.