Separation anxiety in children of divorced parents is fairly common.
Unfortunately, for us, this wasn’t a one-time phase that was easily resolved. It’s been something that we continue to work through. I think this is the case with most children of divorce that experience separation anxiety.
However, it is something that your child can overcome!
Below is my experience and what we have done over the years.
Separation Anxiety in Children of Divorced Parents
When I first divorced, both my children experienced separation anxiety. At times, it was fairly intense and we caused quite a few scenes as a result. Although they both spent the majority of their time with me, their anxiety presented itself when they were leaving me.
My oldest was in kindergarten when I separated from his father. He had a very hard time initially. In the morning he refused to get the bus and leave me for school. He would cling to me and cause such a scene at the bus stop that I could not get him physically inside the bus.
For about a month, my neighbor, who became like a grandpa to my children, would come over in the mornings and take him from my house screaming and crying and hold him at the bus stop then put him on the bus. Eventually, he grew to love walking to the bus stop with him.
The absolute worst memory was a drop off one day at the school from my car to their dad’s. He simply refused. A 7-year old can really resist with all of their limbs and weight. He was screaming and demanding to come back to me. Many people stopped and stared.
During times like this, you have to ignore others. I knew he was perfectly safe going to his dad’s and going to a loving environment. If I gave into this, I would be giving into everything.
For the next couple of years, I was unable to visit his school for lunches or class parties. The teachers would tell me he would be so upset when I left that it just wasn’t worth it. Although it was hard for me to miss out on some of those things, I knew he was happier without seeing me just to see me leave.
Woodchips: Our Key to Easing Separation Anxiety
My youngest was more difficult. It was about a year later when he began showing symptoms of separation anxiety. He was five at the time and had just begun kindergarten. His kindergarten teacher would email me and tell me she was concerned that he was too sad. I was told he wouldn’t play with the other children and just stood by her asking to come home. He would cry each morning and every time he had to leave me.
He didn’t throw any large fits and refuse to get on the bus, it was just tears and complete sadness. This is harder for a mom.
I started by giving him a picture of him and me together to carry around. He liked that but it wasn’t very convenient. He had to keep the picture in his backpack or if he was going with grandma or dad, he just had to carry it in his hand.
Eventually, we stumbled across the idea to carry wood chips in his pocket. I bought these heart shaped wood chips and painted them different colors. Then I wrote different notes on each one. “Mom loves you.” “I love you.” Mommy & Me.” I would also write other family members loved him, even his dog’s names.Each morning he would request a different quote and different color. He would put it in his pocket. When he was in class, out on recess, on the bus, wherever he would reach into his pocket and feel the heart and remind himself he was loved.
This worked so well that we kept this up for years! If I began to run out, he would have a mini-panic attack. If the bus was coming and he didn’t have his wood chip for the day, he wasn’t getting on the bus. But give him a wood chip, and it was all good.
This system was not to be messed with. Eventually, his older sister began to request wood chips as well.
Sleepovers and Separation Anxiety
A lot of children have trouble with separation anxiety when going to sleepovers with friends. This is true whether they have separation anxiety as a child of divorce or not.
My children also experienced this. We employed the strategy above with the wood chips (secretly, of course) and also had children spend the night at our house more frequently. When I knew the parents very well, then we would try it, both sides being prepared for midnight drives home. And they happened. Otherwise, we simply skipped overnights for a very long time.
Overall, in these cases, I found it’s much easier to let the child set the pace for overnights.
Evening Routines: Setting Up the Next Day
In addition to the wood chips, each evening we followed a very consistent evening routine when they spent the night at my house.
We would spend the last 1 to 2 hours before sleeping just hanging out in my bed. We would set aside time doing bible memorization as a family.
Next, I would either try to spend a little time alone with each child just cuddling and talking or talking to both kids using questions like the ones below. Then we would all pick our own books to read until everyone was ready to sleep.
Print these questions out in a free printable from the resource library for free.
- What was your highlight of the day?
- Did you have a low?
- Who did you sit by at lunch?
- What game did you play at recess?
- Try to trump me – test me to see if I know the answer to something you learned today.
- What is the craziest rule in school?
- Who is your favorite teacher and why?
- What do you like about riding the bus and do you not like?
- If you were principal for the day what would you do differently?
- What is one thing your teacher always says?
- What subject are you bored in?
- What is the most challenging subject for you?
- What schedule did you follow today?
- What is the funniest thing that happened at school today?
- What book is your teacher or class reading together?
- Who did you play with at recess?
- What is your favorite school lunch?
- Do you know the name of your school janitor?
- Is your class planning another school trip?
- Who is the funniest person in your class?
- What is a popular saying with your friends that you think I haven’t heard of?
- Do you have a study buddy at school?
Staying Calm to Reduce Anxiety
The morning before school or drop off at daycare can always be hectic. This is often where separation anxiety presents itself. If your child is dropped off from another family member or their father in the morning, this can add to the craziness.
Adding a morning routine and extra time in the morning to give your child stability is key. Discussing what you have planned that evening or upcoming weekend can also help.
This is when I would give my child their woodchips, like the ones below.