Many people diagnose separation anxiety on the basis of observable behaviour – a child expresses fear about going to or leaving behind a parent.
However, observable behaviour tells very little about what may be giving rise to the separation anxiety. As such, parents often find themselves in conflict over the why – as well as how to manage the situation.
Parents may argue about each other’s motives and behaviour underlying the anxiety. This can lead to an escalation in the separation anxiety, which in turn feeds more parental conflict. This becomes circular and entrenched.
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To understand what may be underlying the child’s separation anxiety, there are many things to consider. Here is a partial list:
One has to consider the age of the child; the degree of prior parental contact; unresolved parental anger or animosity towards the other parent; both parents’ ability to attune themselves emotionally to the needs of the child; the parents’ ability to shelter the child from conflict; exposure of the child to untoward parental behaviour; the ability of either or both parents to manage any contrary behaviour on the part of the child; the ability of the parents to set limits, boundaries and expectations on the child; any other losses the child may have experienced.
Arguing and seeking to convince the other parent of one’s own views and solutions typically does not resolve these issues. More helpful is the ability of the parents to exercise patience with each other, and hear through each parent’s concerns. If willing, parents may try the solutions proposed to see if that eases the situation.
If parents cannot come to an understanding and solution on their own, then counselling would be indicated to help achieve a mutual understanding and strategy to facilitate the child’s separation.
While some parents may seek court intervention to force a child to leave one parent for the other, those interventions often backfire and make matters worse. If court relief is sought, it should be towards compelling joint counselling and problem-solving for the parents, assuming it is safe to do so. Counselling directed towards the child alone may only entrench the child in their anxiety.
Ways to minimize the risk of separation anxiety starts with both parents managing their own feelings, and also being able to avoid getting caught up in the child’s expression of anxiety when it is known that there is nothing to actually be fearful of.