The most validating thing I heard while researching anxiety and all the reasons why my child was anxious is that anxiety is partly inherited. I was listening to a parenting podcast when I heard this, and I paused and replayed the sentence over and over again.
There were tears and frantic texting to everyone I know, because knowing that my daughter’s anxiety was at least partly genetic made me feel like less of a shitty mom.
Truthfully, I know I’m not a shitty mom. But while struggling through my daughter’s separation anxiety this past year, I’ve found myself questioning my parenting skills.
There have been therapy sessions, silent screaming in the car (well, not always silent) and a whole lot of treating myself to Starbucks chai tea lattes at the end of each excruciating school morning.
The question on my mind for the last year: what am I doing wrong?
My daughter Sophia is 4 years old. Our journey with separation anxiety began last September when she was three and first enrolled in preschool. Everyday like clockwork, she would clutch my leg and cry at the thought of me leaving her.
At first it wasn’t so bad because lots of other kids and parents were in the same boat. But then, September became October and before I knew it, it was almost Christmas. Four months had gone by and we were still repeating the same ritual of crying every morning.
I tried my best to muddle through it. I put a smile on my face after I handed her off to the teacher and did a walk of shame to my car. By the time I left the school, most of the parents were already in their cars and on their way to work. Sophia’s separation anxiety meant that every morning I had to race against the clock to be back at my home office to start work at 9am.
Emotionally, it was draining. I dreaded the work week and when Sunday rolled around, I would feel my anxiety build. My daughter’s separation anxiety led to my very own separation anxiety every school morning and it was torture.
Sometimes I couldn’t sleep because I was so worried about what the morning would bring. Waging a war every morning for 5 days a week takes a toll on you in ways you don’t consider. I found myself feeling angry, frustrated, sad and anxious and this bled over into my work and other relationships. I felt isolated in my struggle because no one I knew was going through a similar issue and I didn’t feel like sharing with others.
Something about it felt embarrassing.
When preschool ended in June I knew that something needed to change before we transitioned to daycare, so I reached out to a therapist friend for help. She talked me through some tried and true techniques such as wearing friendship necklaces so that we have a piece of each other when we’re apart, writing a social story that she would take to daycare with her that reaffirms how much fun she has at daycare and how I will always come back to pick her up.
We talked about what she enjoys about daycare, we worked on how to ask friends to play—something she was struggling with. I read her all the books I could find on separation anxiety honestly, there was some improvement.
Were any of these methods a hundred percent effective? Nope. But there were some good days during drop off and some not so bad days.
Mind you, we still have terrible days where I drink coffee in my car and contemplate motherhood but we’re getting somewhere—I think.
While navigating this tumultuous time as a mother I had an epiphany about my daughter's separation anxiety: wait for it, it’s a good one.
It’s okay for children to be anxious.
As a mom my first instinct was to shut down the anxiety and make it go away, but kids need to be able to sit with their feelings—we all do.
It’s important we accept anxiety as a normal emotional response so that our kids can accept it as well. There is no one size fits all approach to parenting. My kid is anxious, some days more than others but we still do the thing and get to school. Are we perfect? Not even close, but it’s important for me to show her that this is okay.
Anxiety is normal and my anxious kid and I—we’re going to be just fine.
To all the parents who are feeling anxious about the start of the school year and navigating your child’s anxiety:you got this.
Be with your kid. Be with their emotions. Let them know it’s okay to feel all the things and navigate the anxiety together. If you see another parent crying in the car (or you are the parent crying in the car), remember you're doing the best you can. We all are.
Anxious mom, out.
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