Blog#21: Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a really bloody complicated thing. And when you have a neurodivergent child, it can be totally overwhelming and affect so many aspects of family life.

As parents, it can make us feel smothered, frustrated and angry even. Desperate for time away from our children to be able to rest, re-calibrate and be able to feel like ‘ourselves’, but unable to do so.

Does this situation sound familiar? You’ve planned something, you get your coat on, start pulling on your shoes and then it’s almost as if the air thickens. You can sense tension, even panic (your own?) as you know the inevitable is coming.

The child by the door. The sad face. Or perhaps they’re angry. They don’t want you to go. They NEED you not to go.

They may beg, plead, bargain, ask to come with you. They may start saying hurtful things. You start to feel chocked. You NEED time alone. If your child doesn’t go to school, you may not get any down-time at all. You feel you might go crazy if you spend another hour in the house.

What about if you have to go to work? The intense worry and pressure of juggling your child’s needs with a job can be totally overwhelming. What will you do for money if you lose your job?

Family members and/or friends can’t understand this situation. Especially if your child is of an age where it’s felt they ‘should’ be able to survive without you for a couple of hours.

They tell you it’s not good for you, OR your child. “Your child should be able to be independent. This isn’t healthy for anyone. You need to go to work, have a social life. This just isn’t normal!”

“Why don’t you just go? Walk away, leave them crying. They will be fine once you’ve left. They know you love them. They need to build up resilience!”

“You’re pandering. Making a rod for your own back.”

But leave them at what cost? How can you do a day’s work when you know your absence has caused such heartache and pain. How can you have a coffee with a friend when you know your child feels frightened and alone? You can’t.

The simple fact is, we’re not like many other families. Our situations are infinitely more complex. Normal rules don’t apply here. Our children are experiencing the world through a different lens, and we need to remember this.

Perhaps your child isn’t fine once you’ve gone. Perhaps your absence triggers a meltdown and the mental and physical destruction that ensues once your away is too much for you to bear. Or perhaps once you’ve gone, they withdraw. And you know that’s just as harmful for them.

What do you do? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There’s no easy answer.

What does separation anxiety feel like for your child? I asked myself this recently, in an attempt to better understand what JJ was feeling. And it was really hard to imagine. I’ve not felt separation anxiety in years. But I do vaguely remember it’s not a measured emotion. It’s raw, painful, frightening.

JJ told me today that he felt ‘sad and depressed’ when I go out sometimes. Some days it’s worse than other days. It fluctuates. I was so pleased he’d found the emotional language to express this to me. It’s huge progress, and opened up the door to a conversation where I could let him know that these feelings are so normal, so understandable. But also, that he wouldn’t always feel like this.

When you’re the ‘safe’ person for a neurodivergent child, this is your life. You’re an anchor for them in a sea of uncertainty, where nothing feels stable and emotions come in huge waves making them feel like they’re drowning.

Often, it’s not about what you say or what you do for your child. You don’t have to be in the same room as them. But they know you’re there. Close. Their number one advocate, their protector, their port in the stormy sea. Their navigator through life.

Anxiety brought on by school, or friends, or illness, or other worries can mean you need to anchor more closely than usual. Other days, if anxiety is lower, you can anchor them out of sight, and even from a distance. But the feeling of safety and security and predictability you offer is always there.

What do I do? I follow my own internal navigation system, otherwise known as my instincts. Often, instinct is all I’ve got left if I’m tired, worried and trying to balance obligations which seem impossible to balance. It’s all any of us can do.

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