St. Lawrence Health officials say kids aren’t the only ones with separation anxiety

Posted 6/15/24

Children and young adults are not the only ones who have trouble handling the emotions of leaving for college or summer camp. Learn how parents can better cope.

When most people think of …

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St. Lawrence Health officials say kids aren’t the only ones with separation anxiety


Children and young adults are not the only ones who have trouble handling the emotions of leaving for college or summer camp. Learn how parents can better cope.

When most people think of separation anxiety, they think of teary-eyed young children leaving for their first day of school or being dropped off at their first-ever friend's birthday party. However, this leaves a key person out of the equation: the parent, who might be just as likely to be dealing with similar emotions.

Separation anxiety is a feeling that stems from a fear or worry of being away from something or someone – usually a person – due to a change in environment. Whether a child is leaving for summer camp, college, or moving out of the house to be on their own, that particular anxiety can be difficult for parents.

We asked our behavioral health team how to recognize signs of separation anxiety and some techniques of how to deal with the emotions in a healthy way.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

When a child first leaves home, there is a big shift in the dynamic of their relationship. The parent is no longer directly “in charge” or primarily guiding the relationship, which leads to a conscious feeling of loss of control.

“It is normal for parents to feel sad, lonely and even grieve their child’s absence,” said Mary Dousharm, LCSW-R, a clinical social worker at Gouverneur Hospital.

As a result, some parents may experience one or more of these physical or emotional symptoms:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • disrupted sleep
  • excessive worrying
  • experiencing loss of control
  • fear of not being able to protect child
  • fear of something bad happening when a person leaves
  • following a child around the house
  • feeling loneliness or emptiness
  • increased feelings of anxiety or sadness
  • headaches or stomach aches

Adults who already live with some type of anxiety – postpartum depression or anxiety, PTSD, panic or social anxiety disorders, or a personality disorder – might be more likely to have separation anxiety. If you have gone through a major life event like a death or serious illness of a loved one, a natural disaster, or other similar change, this might also heighten that anxiety.

How Long Does Separation Anxiety Last?

Despite what you might be feeling, separation anxiety does not last forever. Every person’s experience is different; feelings of anxiety will last different lengths of time depending on how it is impacting you.

If you find yourself or a loved one skipping out on social events or other activities due to anxiety, or are checking in with a child to the point where it is becoming disruptive to both of your lives, you should consider reaching out to someone for extra help and support. This doesn’t have to be a therapist or counselor; your partner, a close friend or close relative, or a group of parents or friends can often help you navigate your emotions and feelings.

For most adults, living with symptoms of separation anxiety longer than six weeks should warrant talking with a therapist or counselor.

Techniques to Lessen and Manage Anxiety

Have conversations early: Remember feelings of anxiety don’t suddenly start when a child leaves for college. Conversations can start a year or two before they finish high school. The more interest you show in their future and discuss before they leave, the more prepared both of you will be.

“When you're talking about a child leaving or starting a new chapter, it becomes important for you as an adult to start considering what you can do for yourself,” said Courtney Smith, senior primary therapist with Community Youth Behavioral Health at Greece Arcadia Middle and High Schools. “It can be challenging to be a person who is separate from a parent, but it will be good for you in the long term.”

Start a hobby: Find a way to focus your time and take charge of something new. You are still a parent, but hobbies help you to focus more on the part of yourself that exists outside of your child.

Be quiet with yourself: Whether you start to read more books, write your thoughts in a journal, try meditation, spend time with people who have similar spiritual or religious beliefs, or go for a walk in a park, learning to be still helps you grow into a stronger person mentally and emotionally.

Exercise: Getting out that anxious energy through physical activity is a great way to calm your mind and boost your body’s health. You don’t have to sign up to run a marathon or take multiple boxing classes every day; https://hive.rochesterregional.org/wellness/gym-ready-checklist and pursue that.

Talk with someone else: No matter how close you are with your child, avoid making them your sole confidant for talking about any separation anxiety. Those kinds of conversations risk placing undue stress and anxiety on your child, and places an unfair burden on them to put your emotional needs above their own.

“As your child grows older, make a conscious effort to separate yourself in small ways,” Smith said. “As they get older, you can educate them on what you go through emotionally and how you cope with it. This way, they understand they are never responsible for your feelings or how you're dealing with things.”

“The more you prepare and the more you know ahead of time, the better you can manage any symptoms of your anxiety because anxiety comes from the unknown,” said Caitlin Bradley, LMCH, MBA, program manager for Community Youth Behavioral Health in Greece.

Learn about Behavioral Health services offered through St. Lawrence Health by visitinghttps://www.stlawrencehealthsystem.org/services/behavioral-health.