Separation Anxiety From Your Child: How to Cope and How Not to Cope

One of the most real, and for myself personally, emotionally draining part of co-parenting is the separation anxiety that you experience when your child is away at their other parent’s house.

I would be sitting at home watching my show, out of the house with my girl friend’s getting dinner, or even out on a date with my significant other, and all of the sudden, out of nowhere, I would get a terrifying thought, “What if they got in a fatal car accident, and the last time I got to say goodbye was when I dropped him off at day care in a huge rush.” An absolutely sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach would slowly crawl and engulf the rest of my body. Sometimes, the thoughts wouldn’t even have to be that dark.

Just watching my son scream and cry as his dad walked him out of my house into his car during pick ups would cause me to burst into tears the moment that I shut the door. I would guilt myself immediately afterward. These times were especially emotionally draining when my son was going through his extreme mom attachment ages (between 18 months to 2.5 years were brutal).

Or fears of my son getting very sick and just wanting his mommy to snuggle him, but having to settle for dad/step mom because he won’t be seeing mommy for a few more days.

Fears that he would have to be rushed to the hospital and I wouldn’t wake up to my phone ringing off of the hook in the middle of the night, telling me to get the hospital immediately.

If I am being completely honest, I have definitely not handled this well over the years. I have, on more than one occasion, turned to substances to “numb” the emotional pain that I experienced while my son is with his father. Alcohol, though, only makes the depression the next day worse with the addition of physical pain from the hangover; it is only a temporary sedative. Unfortunately, I was at an age (early twenties) and surrounded myself with people who were also using alcohol (and other substances) as a self prescribed emotional sedative. I followed suit very easily and played the victim to my situation.

Side note: there is nothing wrong with having a few drinks with friends or family with or without your child present, as long as you are being responsible and not drinking with the intention to numb emotional pain. The last thing that I want to do is make any parent feel additionally guilty, because I think we get that from everyone else in our lives. I just speak from experience when I say that drinking away any emotional pain is not going to work in the long run.

One of the most critical part of my separation anxiety was my thoughts as soon as my son was off with his father. I would think to myself, “Maybe, if I would have tried to work our relationship out with my ex harder before we broke up, my son wouldn’t have to go back and forth”, or “If his father wasn’t in his life (or didn’t have as much custody), neither my son or I would have to experience being separated from each other so often, and I wouldn’t feel like this all the time.”

I would justify these thoughts by degrading my ex and myself. I would convince myself that I was a terrible mother, and I would compare myself to my married friends who had their children full time. I would tell myself I was less of a mother because I had the opportunity to enjoy my life unlike other parents I knew (this is an awful mind trap, don’t go there). I would scrutinize my ex for even the smallest, most pathetic aspects of his parenting, to make myself feel like I was the better parent and deserved more custody.

After a vicious cycle of years of thinking and feeling this way, I eventually decided that enough was enough. I was tired of feeling sad and depressed about things that were quite honestly out of my control. I was tired of using alcohol to numb my pain and just feeling worse. I cut out relationships with toxic people; people who were victimizing themselves to their lives and fed into my victimization (this included a two and a half year romantic relationship, and multiple friends I had had for many, many years).

I decided to embrace my reality. If thoughts about me being a terrible mother popped into my head (which were based entirely on the amount of time that I was spending with my child compared to others), I would remind myself of all the ways that I was an amazing mother, and how much my son adored me. I could not go back in time and change anything; not the way that my son’s father and I split, not raising my son in a broken home, not the amount of custody I had given his father, all of those things had happened and were happening. I could only change the way that I thought and felt in this very moment.

I would tell myself, “This is my life. Either I am going to enjoy it, or spend the rest of my life beating myself up about things that I cannot control and continuing to be miserable”. There is something incredibly freeing about letting go of a nasty pattern of victimizing yourself. (I even feel more free now, just by writing on a public forum about it.) You allow yourself to enjoy your life again, and that is exactly what I did.

I invested in healthier friendships and relationships. I spent time doing things that I really enjoy doing, but aren’t necessarily the easiest to do when I have my son with me. I went to concerts, I went out to eat, I went for a hike or a long walk, I went to the gym, I played with my dogs without interruption, I worked on crafts I had wanted to for ages. I allowed myself to be happy without my son being there. For the first time, I enjoyed the days and evenings that he was with his father. I was doing some of the same things that I had been before, but I wasn’t doing them to distract myself anymore. I was doing them because I enjoyed doing them. I have become extremely productive while he is away with his father. I feed parts of my life that give me joy, instead of rob joy.

Fearful thoughts that terrorize me during my periods of separation anxiety will still hit me like a rock in the stomach, but I reassure myself rather than guilt trip myself. I don’t burden myself further with thoughts that I am a terrible mother, or resent myself for agreeing to give my son’s father so much parenting time. I don’t drink to numb the pain of all of these emotions; if I drink, I drink to celebrate life. I feel the thoughts and use positive responses, rather than negative, to combat them. The base of these thoughts being “why are you worried about something you cannot control?” If I get worried I will ask myself, “Is this useful? Is this going to help me solve any problems?”

The change has been incredible for me, and I know it can be for anyone else struggling with separation anxiety from their children and thoughts of guilt about not being as good as other parents who have their children full time. It has taken me a long time to retrain my brain to enjoy my periods of time without him. I still miss him terribly, but instead of beating myself up about it, I will spend time planning a fun activity for us to enjoy together.