Separation Anxiety and Parental Visitation

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Do your kid's experience separation anxiety before parental visitation with your ex? Here’s how to identify the issue and decide on the best way to tackle it without violating your child custody agreement.

Identify Separation Anxiety

You may be used to thinking of separation anxiety as a set of behaviors young toddlers commonly exhibit when separating from their primary caregiver. In fact, if your kids have already ‘grown out’ of this crying-and-clinging stage, it can be frustrating to see separation anxiety pop back up in relation to parental visitation with your ex. Yet when families go through major changes, such as a move, new separation, or divorce, it’s common for parents to see some old patterns reappear, even for older kids. So what does it look like? When separation anxiety rears its ugly head, kids of all ages may exhibit:

  • Bouts of crying
  • Anxiety attacks
  • Increased irritability
  • Anger and frustration
  • Fear
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in appetite

Remember, too, that your kids may experience these separation anxiety behaviors even if there’s no reason for them. In other words, your kids don’t have to have a good, sound reason to be afraid of sleeping over your ex’s house for them to go through separation anxiety as the visit approaches. This is because the anxiety they’re experiencing isn’t necessarily rational. And if you’re the primary caregiver, figuring out the difference between what’s irrational and what’s legitimate can be one of the most challenging aspects of navigating separation anxiety in relation to parental visitation.

Tap into Your Rational Mind

As separation anxiety before a visit begins to set in, your child may not be thinking rationally. That’s why it’s even more important for you to be rational and keep your own separation anxiety in check. Consider what you know about your ex and where your child will be spending time during the scheduled visit. Chances are, you’re already confident that your child will be as safe with your ex as he or she is in your own home. That’s why the courts ordered visitation, right? Any issues that would have warranted an in-home child custody evaluation have already been explored, and unless you have a true reason to be concerned about visitation safety, projecting an air of calm confidence will go a long way toward helping to ease your child's pre-visit jitters.

Avoid Knee-Jerk Reactions

It’s hard to see your child go through separation anxiety as visits with your ex approach. But giving in and allowing your child to skip out on planned visits with your ex may not be the best response. In fact, handling that kind of power over to your child can be confusing and may even generate more anxiety. So avoid the temptation to give in to your child’s fears by letting him or her stay home “just this once.” Instead, use the tips below to resolve the issue.

Start a Dialogue

Talk with your child about what he or she is feeling. But don’t just ask what he or she is afraid of. Also, ask your child what he’s looking forward to at your ex’s house and what kinds of fun things they did last time. Keep in mind, too, that your child could be concerned about leaving you behind. If that’s the case, mention what you’ll be doing and how you can’t wait to swap stories with one another when you come back together after the visit.

Set Age-Appropriate Expectations

When navigating visitation-related separation anxiety, be sure to consider your child’s age.

  • Infants benefit from having a consistent routine, so be sure to share with your ex what your typical schedule looks like so he or she can mimic that routine. And if there’s something special that works like a charm to soothe your baby when she’s crying—like the football hold—don’t keep it to yourself. Share what works with your ex so he or she can calm your baby when needed in your absence.
  • Toddlers may experience separation anxiety every time you’re apart, so be cautious not to attribute too much weight to pre-visit separation anxiety at this stage. In addition, be sure to share with your ex some of the go-to activities you rely on to keep your toddler busy and engaged.
  • Preschoolers still need the comfort of consistency. So be sure to pack your child’s favorite stuffed animal and other ‘necessities’ for overnights with your ex. And if there’s a bedtime routine that helps her ease to sleep more readily, be sure to share your secret sauce with your ex. A good night’s sleep can help tremendously when your child is in the throes of intense separation anxiety.
  • School-age children may have activities they want to keep up with, such as soccer practice or piano lessons. If it’s doable, have your ex bring your child to each scheduled activity so they can enjoy them together. And just like preschoolers, school-age children are heavily impacted by sleep loss. So if you have a good relationship with your ex, coach him or her to stick to your child’s regular bedtime.
  • Teens are naturally attached to their friends and may miss spending time with them during visits. Consider whether it may be possible for your teen to stay in touch digitally during overnights with your ex. This can help to minimize the sting of feeling left out during visits without compromising your child's relationship with your ex.

Collaborate with Your Ex

Even if you don’t get along with your ex personally, or if the pain you’ve inflicted on one another is still fresh, learning how to collaborate as co-parents will help your child cope with visitation-related separation anxiety. Toward this end, try to:

  • Agree up front on a trial visitation schedule. You may need to be flexible about the length and frequency of visits, but keeping them going while your child is experiencing separation anxiety is extremely important. Remember that the goal is for your child and your ex to forge an ongoing, positive, nurturing relationship. That can’t happen without spending time together!
  • Plan when and how you’ll communicate. Your child may be comforted to know up front how and when you’ll be communicating. Whether you’ll be calling daily, or your child can text you every morning and evening, establishing a routine and setting the expectation for how you’ll connect can help to soothe separation anxiety.
  • Plan ahead for contingencies. There may be times when your child’s anxiety seems so intense that you’ll each begin to question yourselves and whether the plan you’ve created is working. Decide up front what kinds of behaviors warrant an unscheduled phone call or even a last-minute change of plans.

Get Your Tribe Involved

Particularly if your child is not accustomed to being away from you, it can help to schedule short-term outings with aunties, uncles, and friends. This allows your child (and you) to get used to being apart short-term without the added stress associated with absorbing any non-verbal cues as you relate to your ex before and during visitation drop-offs.

Take Baby Steps

Particularly when your child is experiencing an increase in separation anxiety associated with parental visitation, it’s important to take small, measurable steps and celebrate your successes. If pre- and post-visit meltdowns are getting shorter, you’re winning. If your child reports something fun after an overnight with your ex, you’re making progress. It will take time, but you’ll get there.

Re-evaluate Your Plan Regularly

No parenting plan is permanent. So give yourselves some flexibility as you navigate the separation anxiety your child is experiencing. Pay attention to what works and try to repeat it each time. And be sure to re-evaluate your plan regularly, and at least once a year, to make changes and keep up with your child's needs.