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How to Deal with Separation Anxiety

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

It’s that time of year again. The time of year when kids, young adults, parents, students, and teachers are settling back into school.

And, just before they leave, there are fights, arguments, conflict, and drama.

But now, just 2 weeks later there’s grief, sadness, loss, and an empty feeling.

Have you ever noticed this?

It’s a real thing. A natural and normal phenomenon.

The conflict that comes beforehand, happens as a way of preparing to separate.

And, the sadness and empty feeling that comes afterward, is a result of the change in the everyday routine. With the kids out of the house or as a student at school or maybe on your commute out of town for work, all of this space gives you so very much time to reflect or worse…to ruminate, on how different it all feels. But more about this in another blog.

For today, I want you to know how and why this fighting and arguing is normal for ANY separation, including divorce, marital separation, the distance of working out of town, when your boss is preparing for some time off, or even when you go on vacation. And, especially when the kids are in school during the day and you’re home alone.

It’s a mixed bag of emotions.

Just to focus on the return to school example ~ those mixed feelings are happy and excited for a new adventure sprinkled with sadness and fear for the unknown road ahead. Young adults are eager to fly the coop and have some freedom and space. But also, worried about being homesick. This excitement and worry come together to make an irritable person.

My own son, although not heading off to post-secondary, but entering the workforce full time is excited for this new change, but also anxious for this next chapter. When I ask if he’ll be home for dinner, it’s not unusual to be met with, “Don’t tell me what to do.” Bickering and picking battles from out of nowhere. The stress and irritability can fill a house.

I have to admit, I’ve had a few moments when I thought we might be so much less stressed once he moves out. And, then in the next moment he turns around and says, “You know mom, I’m picking fights so that it’ll be easier when I move away.” Awww….my heart melts again and I just wanna hug him. But I don’t because he’s already on edge. And, I don’t wanna be a “smother”.

This conflict, just before parting is super common and normal in ALL RELATIONSHIPS and SEPARATIONS because it signals a threat to the union. It sends a message to the brain that says, you will not be together, and you’ll be alone. Or, if not alone it says, you’ll be without me.

Human beings are hardwired for connection. You thrive when you have close relationships, strong bonds, and deeply attuned contact. When you’re apart, it’s in your human nature to feel the fear and loss that triggers a “threat” and contributes to fighting. But again, more of this in a future blog.

Part of the conflict also has to do with the build up of stress and anxiety. Packing, preparing, getting organized and putting all of your ducks in a row. For students, they’re dealing with all of the details of picking classes, where to live, budgeting and buying books, household items and getting to know new classmates and teachers or maybe even a new city and roommates. It can be overwhelming. These are some of the first adult responsibilities for many young adults and it can feel overwhelming.

The other factor for students is ~ this is how adolescents differentiate themselves. Yes, adolescence spans from around the age of 12 – 24, according to experts such as Daniel Siegel. It’s a period of great change and figuring out who you are. And differentiation is how young adults see themselves as different or separate from their parents. Becoming your own person. This is the time when young people will gravitate more to friends and peers for support and advice. And move further away from parents.

So, the conflict, fighting, arguing, and bickering comes from the brain signalling danger that you’re about to be alone. It comes from the stress and anxiety of preparing and organizing and getting ready to leave. And it comes from the sadness, loss, grief, and emptiness that ensues.

For parents and students or even if you’re preparing for vacation or to work out of town, a few things you can do:

  1. Know that fear, sadness, anger, and irritability are natural and normal emotional responses to a separation. Give yourself some credit that nothing is “wrong”, you’re just feeling your feelings.

  2. Get organized. Know what you need to do, and DO IT. No procrastinating. This will minimize the stress and overwhelm that contribute to agitation.

  3. Give credit, know, and trust in your own and other’s ability to get through these tough transition times. Recognize the resilience that is there. Look for what is working, rather than focusing solely on the conflict, problems, and drama.

  4. For parents with kids heading off to school: know that you have done a great job supporting your young adult to be resourceful to turn to outside supports, rather than being dependant on you. These challenges might be draining, but just know that they are adaptive and important for healthy growth and maturity.

Drop a note and let me know how you manage the stress of separation.

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