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Acute separation anxiety in a four year old

(8 Posts)
ArthurMcAffertyhastwocats Thu 08-Sep-11 16:52:52

My four year old has become incredibly clingy. He’s had a very difficult year – my ex walked out late last year to live with someone else, with no warning, and that has obviously shaken the foundations of his world. But I’m finding it increasingly difficult to leave him – most of his conversation now is about how much he misses his father, or how much he misses me when I go to work. He's starting waking up in the night crying because I'm not there with him, and doesn't like being left I had to peel him off me this morning and left him in floods of tears in the classroom, and our au pair has just called from school to say he’s nearly hysterical because she is there to collect him and not me. I did tell him this morning that she would be collecting him, and he loves her, but he obviously forgot.

He’s just started school. He’s very young for his year (early August birthday) but has been attending the pre school for the last 18 months, so it’s not as if this is a new environment for him. It’s been going on all summer as well – when I tried to leave him with his siblings and grandparents one evening so I could go out, he cried for about an hour, so it isn’t just a school thing, though that’s clearly a factor. I’ve been working since he was about six months old, so he is used to being left, and has always been collected by someone he knows and loves – either my parents or our nanny.

I try and be very clear with him about what is happening – we talk about the plan for the day, and the week, a lot, so he always knows what’s happening. But he’s a very anxious and sensitive little soul, who has always been very attached to me, and he needs lots and lots of reassurance.

My heart breaks for him. His father left, and then our very much loved nanny left at the start of the holidays, to be replaced by the (equally loved) au pair. He sees his father a lot, but it’s obviously not the same as having him at home. I just don’t know how to reassure him, or what I can do to help. I will try and do as many pick ups and drop offs at school as I can for the next few weeks but I’m limited by the fact I work about 45 minutes away in a job that requires me to be in the office a lot of the time.

The older children are also quite clingy, but they are much more able to understand the need for me to work, and the restrictions that imposes. Giving up work simply isn’t an option financially (or indeed emotionally – selfishly, I love work and it’s been the one thing that has kept me sane over the last year).

I don’t know if there are any magic bullets for this, but would really welcome any advice, practical or otherwise. It's incredibly distressing for him, and I would love to make it better for him if I could.

dikkertjedap Thu 08-Sep-11 18:54:07

Do you know how quickly he settles at school after you have left? I would prioritise, and either pick him up every afternoon and having the au pair take him to school or the other way round and establishing a clear routine. Does he enjoy school? He is still very young, so you could send him half days and have the au pair looking after him the other half day if school is too tiring for him?

lingle Thu 08-Sep-11 20:21:38

poor darling and poor you.

I'm sure there's no magic bullet but I have one suggestion.
When you say "we talk about the plan for the day, and the week, a lot, so he always knows what’s happening" - I would create this plan in a mini calendar form that he understands and can take to school in his bookbag.
that way, if it's a mummy picking up day he can check his calendar to reassure himself. If it's an au-pair day, that day should finish with a mummy or home symbol so that he can still get reassurance from looking at it. If the plan ever changes while he's at school, it's important to get the teaching assistant to change the calendar too - otherwise he'd panic more than ever.

anxiety disorients us - no matter how much we've been told something. Permanent visual things like a visual timetable/calendar help us reorient ourselves. Teachers use these with children with special needs who for different reasons also experience anxiety.

If you can figure out how he could helpyou fill in the calendar that would be good too.

good luck.

Tgger Thu 08-Sep-11 22:33:55

I would be very clear about who is picking him up and stick to your guns. Then when you are there (at home), go absolutely mad on the love (sure you do anyway, but go all out). So... loads of physical rough and tumble (well, that's what my 4 year old loves!) as well as special time together doing simple things, reading stories, playing his games, whatever he really loves.

If the older children are coping a bit better can you leave them with a relative at the weekend and take him out for a couple of hours just one on one time with him. Although he will still be wounded, this intensive one on one might give him a bit more of a buffer for coping with the demands of school and being 4.

Sounds like you are doing an incredible job, and of course you feel for your little man, but he will come through.

yawningbear Fri 09-Sep-11 07:50:43

You could also try giving him something of yours to take to school with him, that he can keep in his bag, small and not very precious obviously! A photo can also help, maybe on a keyring. If you do a search for transitional objects & separation anxiety you may find some other ideas. Maybe some storybooks dealing with the issues? The Kissing Hand comes to mind, can't think of the author but its lovely and might help. Goodluck, sounds like you must have had a really tough time.

ArthurMcAffertyhastwocats Fri 09-Sep-11 08:31:57

Sorry for not replying last night - real life got in the way slightly.

These are all wonderful suggestions, thank you so much. Funnily enough, after I posted yesterday the key ring idea did occur to me - I went out and bought one with a small beanie baby type thing attached which he can have on his school bag. He was absolutely thrilled with it, and I told him it had all my love in it, so he never needed to miss me too much.

We have a weekly planner on the wall at home for them all so they can see what's coming up, but it's probably a bit much for him as he isn't really reading yet. The calendar idea is inspired. Lingle you are a genius. He would really appreciate that, I think - I have a blank one sitting in my drawer upstairs, so will dig out some coloured pens and we will make a chart. He is the very definition of an anxious child, and always has been, so this is really hard for him. He's had so much to deal with, and I think I forget how little he is - he's very articulate, but I don't think his understanding of the world is as good as I tend to assume. The easier I can make it for him the better.

The one to one thing would be lovely, I will have to think of ways to make it work. His father does lots of one to one time with him, so I can spend time with the girls - we thought that would work because he's the one who seems most damaged, but I do need to give some thought to how he and I can spend time together.

I don't think half days are an option at the school - though I suppose I could investigate if he really starts to struggle so it's worth bearing in mind. My strong suspicion is that he is totally fine once he gets there, and is distracted by other things.

Thank you for these, I am definitely going to try them. He's the most wonderful little boy, he really is - I'm so desperately proud of him, and it breaks my heart to see him so sad.

ArthurMcAffertyhastwocats Fri 09-Sep-11 08:36:00

I've just gone onto Amazon and ordered the Kissing Hand. Even reading the reviews has made me feel quite tearful - it sounds perfect.

lingle Fri 09-Sep-11 12:05:53

lovely. If the teachers/teaching assistants have had any kids with certain SN in their class recently, they ought to be used to getting out these calendars and using them to talk things through with the child.

You are so right that articulate children can seem to process things at a higher level than they actually do.

good luck.
PS am not really a genius it is a poster called moondog who tells everyone about the calendar idea.

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