Parenting an anxious child – the thing about Soph.

Soph is generally a very happy and easy child (bar her strong will), but over the last year she’s battled consistently with being separated from me, and only me. She’s always been a ‘Mommy’s girl’ but this is taking it to a whole new level – this is the thing about Soph. Separation anxiety is completely normal and usually eases by the age of 2. My child was closer to 2 when it started.

I went back to work when she was 7 months old, leaving her with our helper of 9 years until I’d leave work at 3pm. She transitioned well from me handing her over to Anna in the mornings instead of a leisurely morning with me and it definitely helped me transition back into a career a whole lot smoother than I had anticipated. We enrolled Soph to start at the same Pre-Primary as Oli in January 2017 and the morning drop off was filled with tears and emotion (for both of us) for the first few days, but somewhere during week two the tears stopped and she bounded into her classroom and willingly into her teacher’s arms. We couldn’t have asked for a more caring teacher to love and care for her during her day at school, and the tension and anxiety we both felt during those first days finally dissipated.

That was school. After school, I finally decided to get back to the gym after a bit (okay, more than a bit) of a hiatus, so I’d fetch the kids, drop them off at home with Anna and hightail it to the closet Virgin Active. That’s when Soph started performing at home too. She’d scream and sob until her little body hyperventilated and I’d drive off feeling guilty for upsetting the afternoon. Eventually I stopped going to the gym. Realising the guilt that I was experiencing, Dyl convinced me to leave the kids at school for an extra hour and go straight to the gym instead – why hadn’t I thought of that?!

Every Wednesday I fetch Oli just a little but earlier than normally and rush him to his Speech Therapy in the neighbouring suburb. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. The school park bordered the playground where Sophie and the toddlers played, and I’d arrive as they were sitting in a circle eating sandwiches. Parking as close to the bottom of the parking area as possible I’d sneak to the access gate with the stealth of a ninja, most days. Sometimes one of the kids would be picking flowers off the creeper and spot me shouting ‘Sophie’s Mama’ at the top of their inarticulate little voices and my cover would be blown. That meant, pushing Oli into the car and having one of the teachers pry Sophie away from the fence as she cried as if her life depended on it. These days left me feeling panicky, overly anxious and full of guilt. Did she think I was picking her brother over her? Did she think I’d never come back to fetch her?

Every now and then we drop the kids off with my sister, their aunt, Kiki for a few hours so we can have some ‘Mommy & Daddy time’. Soph would talk non-stop about the imminent visit to Kiki’s house and would be full of smiles until I said goodbye.  With heart wrenching sobs I’d jump into the car and try not to look back. One thing most parents and teachers will tell you about children who battle with separation anxiety, it’s very often momentary. A couple of blocks away from where we dropped the kids, I’d get a text from my sister saying she was absolutely fine! Same goes with the school drop offs!

At some point towards the end of the school year Sophie started regressing with her cheerful goodbyes to me. Between the teacher and I we couldn’t quite pinpoint what had sparked this change in her. Her report rated her low on “I come to school happy most days”. Poor little Buggy. During holiday care when her teacher wasn’t there I’d like think of a thousand excuses to keep her at home so that I didn’t have to hand over a panicking child – arms flailing – to a teacher she didn’t quite know. Getting into the car tears would more often than not, spring to my eyes and I’d have to pep talk myself through the next 40 minutes of traffic to work that she was going to be okay and I wasn’t the worst mom in the world leaving her like that.  Nothing is worse than the guilt I’ve felt as a mother, and this chapter of dealing with Sophie’s separation is right up there for me.  During the Heritage Day festivities, mine was the only child sitting in the audience instead of singing to the audience. She’d spotted me straight away and come straight to me. Christmas Carols – same story– she walked to her row, sat down, and all the well scanned the crowds for my familiar face. My friend Amber (who had Livvy an hour before Soph at the same hospital, and happened to share a room with us, and sent her daughter to the same school) caught the moment Sophie saw me on video – and it was was game over. I ended up sitting in amongst the children with her singing happily on my lap. Her teacher this year only half joked when she said she’d teach me all the words for the end of year concert!

A trip to the shops, a stone’s throw away, to pick up something without her accompanying me (bear in mind I left her with possibly the most loving and attentive father in the world) and it would be like her little world was crumbling – “Mommy! Mommy! Mama! I want, Mama!”. These situations, besides leaving me often feeling just as distraught as her, left Dyl questioning why she wanted nothing to do with him – to absolutely no discredit to him as a parent. Soph would repeatedly ask where I was when I was out and beg Dyl to call me, so he would, only to be met with a tear-streaked little face burst into a fresh set of shoulder-shaking tears. These calls did absolutely zero to calm my nerves, I can assure you. I asked Dyl to stop calling me with her while I was out anywhere.

The new year rolled around, and we decided to switch things up a little bit to see if we could help ease her anxiety whilst separating from me. I stopped doing the morning drop-off and my child skipped into school, happily kissing her dad and waving him goodbye. A few weeks ago Dyl had to go to hospital for an operation – besides the obvious angst of having my husband undergo surgery, I panicked at the thought having to drop the kids, in particular Sophie. I kissed each of the kids before we arrived in the TV room and told them I loved them, and led Soph by hand, directly into her teacher’s outstretched arms. I literally turned on my heel and gapped it out of the school as quickly as possible. Not a peep. No lip wobble. Nothing. With a repeat performance for the next two days until Dad resumed drop-off duty. Was it just a phase (a long one admittedly) she’d grown out of finally?

A few weekends ago I had breakfast with a friend. I started explaining to Sophie on the Friday what I’d be doing, that she would be with her dad and Oli while I was out, but that I’d be back. Her little face looked back at me with a pensive face – “Daddy give me a sweetie when you go?” – sure Soph. And that’s what he did to distract her with while I left the house. Did we bribe our child with the promise of a sweet? Sure. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat if it meant I could leave the house alone without dread for the next hour. These days I get asked when I’m going, as if she’s pushing me out the house – long may it last! We had another tear-free drop off on the weekend at Kiki’s – she bounded into the building without so much as a backwards glance at us.

Here’s what I’ve learnt through trial and error:

Never sneak off – the child will only panic more.

Drop and go. Seriously. Don’t even try sneak in a two-minute conversation with the teacher – send her a text instead once you’re safely enclosed in the car.

Don’t let your anxiety at what’s coming affect your child – but do put on a brave face.

Prepare your child for what’s coming – talk them through your plans, always returning back to the fact that you will be back: “Daddy’s going to drop you off at school in the morning and Mommy is going to fetch you.”.

Parenting an anxious child is hard. It’s going to make you feel like you’ve failed miserably as a parent and shattered their precious little souls, but it has to get better right? Right now, she’s doing fine, a victory in my books. Do you have any other tips you can share with me on what has worked for you?

Professional photo credits to Ashleigh Rose Photography