The Separation Anxiety Factor in ‘Back to School’ (reprint)

On this eve of ‘back to school’ for many of our kids, I think it’s important to remind ourselves about the importance of how our own Emotional Competence can help make the transition easier for them.

Remember, to a child one of the scariest, most anxiety-provoking (and therefore separation-anxiety worsening) things we could do as parents is to disconnect from them.

How do we disconnect you ask?

A million ways ’til Sunday is the short answer.

We disconnect when we snap at them, when we fail to LVAC with them (LVAC=Listen, Validate, Ask, Comment—see my previous posts), and generally when we make it about US and our reactions rather than THEM and their anxiety.

Remember too that children are WAY more sensitive and observant than we are, and that they often speak to us in wonderful, innocent, what I call “learning metaphors.”

A “learning metaphor” is a statement or line of questioning that the child makes in order to either learn something new about themselves or to address their uncomfortable emotions, such as anxiety.

We must use the Spirit of LVAC (a.k.a. LVAC Stance or ‘spirit of exploration’) to participate appropriately with them rather than simply reacting to them out of our own internal conflicts and worries:

“Dad, are you worried about going back to work tomorrow?” (metaphorical question)

“Why, yes, a little bit.” (metaphorical response, knowing he’s worried about school)

“Well, I’m VERY worried about going to school tomorrow!”

“Oh, I see. Yes, Dad can understand that.” (Validation step of LVAC, doesn’t have to be in order)

“I just don’t want to do it!”

“Why’s that?” (Asking step of LVAC)

“I’m so used to being home, getting up when I want, and taking my time getting dressed and eating breakfast in the morning. Now it’ll be a big rush.”

“Oh, I see. Yeah, I could understand that.” (Validation)

“And I don’t know how to get to my new classroom.”

“Oh, yeah. Well, I think your sister said she’ll show you the way tomorrow.” (Comment, but an accurate and useful one to him because I’ve first Listened, Validated, and Asked before Commenting)

“I just want to hide in this blanket.”

Hugging the child in the blanket, “Yeah, I know.” Then saying no more for now. (Validation and NO MORE COMMENTS)

“In two days I’ll have a four day weekend because of the Jewish holiday.” (It’s working; he’s finding his way up out of this)

“Yep, that’s true buddy.”

“Can we go fishing again next weekend and bring along cousin Matt?”

“Sure we can.”


Children reach out to us with either words or behaviors when they are feeling uncomfortable or when they are trying to learn something.

It is up to us to recognize our role in helping them to modulate their anxiety or to learn about themselves by using an LVAC approach with them.

Save the Comments for last, just like LVAC says to do.

Our Comments are often a result of our OWN anxiety or confusion about the issue our child is bringing to us, or what we are observing.

We try to “fix” or “end it” as quickly as possible with our Comments, and, though we mean well and though we love our children very much, we end up getting in our own way and theirs.

Trust me when I tell you that we do NOT have to know the answers all the time.

What we DO have to know is that our children (through either God, evolution, or some combination of both, depending upon your own beliefs) are driven towards growth and healing; we just need to stay out of their way with our immediate Comments (i.e. with either our reactionary words or behaviors.)

Trust that the child has the answer within them. They will not present something to you that lies outside of the meaning and the necessity of their own developmental process; even if it involves a degree of (temporary) pain and discomfort for both of you.

In other words, they often “know” more than we do; we just need to have the emotional skill set to help them get there. LVAC was designed with this wisdom in mind.

It tells us to follow our children to where THEY are emotionally, and to not make them follow US to where we are.

The former will soothe their anxiety and give them strength, self-assurance, and confidence; it will help them eventually fly away from us (in a good way and the way we want them to as their parents.) And it will teach them how to handle themselves and their pain; the same pain which makes us act out in destructive ways in our lives when we don’t know how to do this.

The latter (i.e. making them follow US and OUR emotions instead of vice versa), will create a dependency on OUR Comments and OUR reactions; in other words, upon US.

It will unfortunately weaken them by getting in the way of their own process of self-discovery and the need to face bits of emotional challenges and pain that are meant to help them grow into who they’re supposed to become.

So, my friends, over the next few days and weeks, please keep in mind that your kids might come to you with general anxiety or worry, or perhaps more obvious frank separation anxiety.

Try to use an LVAC approach so that they can feel stronger and more whole and courageous.

Remember that they are VERY sensitive to your reactions.

When we either literally flip out, or more subtly make Comments that give away our inability to handle ourselves (and them), we DISCONNECT from them and they feel it like an ABANDONMENT—thus MORE anxiety.

If, on the other hand, we react with the calm strength of LVAC, we will heal and THEY will grow.

Good luck, and I truly mean good luck, because I know how hard it can be.

Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.

Author, Don’t Get Married! (Unless You Understand a Few Things First)


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