My son who is 5 has severe separation anxiety when he is with his father for the weekend. He is a shy kid who has always taken a lot of comfort in being with his “family” and in his home. So, he is having a hard time adjusting to the idea of having two places to live now that we are divorced.
My ex adores him and tries his best to distract him with fun activities. My son’s anxiety while there has nothing to do with bad treatment so I will continue to send him off to his father’s for visitation. What I need are suggestions of things his father and I can do to help him adjust and relieve his level of anxiety.
Some fear of being separated from a parent is normal in young children. Babies and toddlers have moments of tearfulness when a parents leaves. As children grow older and trust develops, these moments will become less frequent.
However, when parents separate, young children often have a temporary increase in separation anxiety. This is due to the many life-changes children are facing during the divorce process of their parents. Divorce causes a temporary loss of trust. What the child believed to be his family unit forever now suddenly becomes fragmented, which causes distress and confusion. Young children are often afraid that, if one parent can leave, the other parents could also ‘leave me’.
It is important that both of you communicate clearly to your son that you will not leave him. He needs to know the divorce is something between his parents and that both of you will continue to be there for him and take care of him.
Young children need regular schedules and a predictable routine and environment to feel safe. Changing routines can cause confusion and distress. Your son seems to be a sensitive child who may need some extra re-assurance to feel safe. It is important to minimize the changes for your son. Both parents should try to keep the same routine as much as possible.
It may help to decorate his room in both houses in a way that he is used to and keeping the same bed time-rituals in both houses. Good communication between you and your ex is important. A note book going back and forth with the child where both of you write important routines is a good way of making sure you are on the same page.
Young children often have a special toy, bear or blanket that makes them feel safe. If your son has such an object, make sure he can take his ‘transitional object’ with him from house to house for his sense of security.
Pre-schoolers don’t have a good sense of time yet. Making it visual to your son when he will be with you and when with his Daddy may relieve his anxiety. For example, draw hearts for the amount of days he is with one of you and each day let him color one heart. This way he will know exactly when it is time to go back to the other parent. The predictability of knowing when he will see you again may reduce his anxiety.
Some children worry about one parent while visiting the other. When you sent your son off to his father for visitation, re-assure him that you will be fine and give him explicit ‘permission’ to enjoy his time with his father. Talking to your son by phone or Skype at a given time each day (before bedtime for example) can help as well. Important is to remember that ongoing conflict between parents makes children feel unsafe.
It seems that you have the best interest of your son in mind and have insight in his needs. I hope these suggestions will assit you in helping your son adjust to the new situation. Children’s book ‘Nina Has Two Houses’ is another helpful resource where you can find more tips on how to help young children cope with divorce. It is important to keep monitoring the anxiety level of your son. In most cases the anxiety will decrease while the child adjusts to the new situation. However, if you see no improvement while following these suggestions, I advice you to consult a child psychologist.