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Separation Anxiety: 6 steps parents can take to support PDA children

By Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman

What childhood separation anxiety felt like to me

Separation anxiety is something I am intimately familiar with. As an PDA infant, I screamed if anyone held me other than my parents. As a small child, I had full panic meltdowns when my folks went out for the evening and left me with anyone else. I remember the sensation in my body vividly – first the bottom would drop out of my stomach as though I were on a plane that just dropped hundreds of feet in turbulence. Then a hot rush of adrenaline followed, then my arms and legs would be struck with a tingling pain. My chest felt like it was exploding outward into my limbs, and it felt like my arms and legs were pulling away from my core.

In other words, separation from my parents triggered an existential terror in my autonomic nervous system. My body felt like it was coming apart at the seams.

It’s important to note that I had - and have - deeply loving, attentive, stable parents. They didn’t ‘cause’ my anxiety, and if you’re a PDA parent you are not causing your kiddo’s extreme separation anxiety either. While you may be doing things that aren’t helping or that trigger the reaction, I firmly believe the intensity of the panic response comes from the underlying vulnerabilities of the PDA brain.

(By the way, I remember the sensation of my childhood panic vividly because it didn’t stop after early childhood. As an undiagnosed Autistic PDAer I had the same intense separation anxiety from my parents at times as a teenager. As an adult I have felt versions of this panic when separating from other attachment figures.)

How does the nervous system lens help us understand separation anxiety in PDA children?

First, separation from a caregiver, unless directed by the child, is a loss of control. That on its own is perceived by the PDA child’s nervous system as a threat.

Second, we PDAers have trouble staying in a regulated nervous system state. This is not our fault. It comes with having a hypersensitive subconscious radar for threats. Since we live on this edge of trigger, we often do not feel safe inside our own bodies (this is a common experience for Autistics). As infants literally borrow the regulation of their parents’ prefrontal cortex, I believe PDAers rely on the regulation from other safe nervous systems well into later childhood, teenage years, and even adulthood unless we are given optimal environments to self-regulate using other tools. All humans need co-regulation, but for PDAers the extent of our need can be disabling.

Thru this lens, a PDA child’s nervous system is like a wobbly child on a balance beam.

The parent’s nervous system nearby is like a steadying hand. If the hand just suddenly disappears, the child may fall off the beam – i.e. the PDAer may get dysregulated or have a separation anxiety panic attack or shut down.

By the way, as a young kid I would usually panic outwardly when my parents first told me they were going out that evening. By the time the babysitter came and they left, I put myself to bed no matter what time it was. Bed was my safe place, & it was a way to cope with the debilitating sensation inside my body. You can see from the outside how a child doing this could look like an “easy” kid, but that the child may be deeply struggling underneath.

Drawing mostly from my personal experience as a PDA child with intense separation anxiety & a mom to a PDAer who also does, I recommend the following steps to support a young PDAer where this is an issue - whether at school or with a babysitter.

6 steps parents can take to support PDA children with separation anxiety

(1) View the behavior as an expression of the PDA disability

See the intense panic/shut down as an expression of a nervous system disability in which the child cannot regulate their own sense of safety without the support of something external, such as a primary caregiver, special interest, or screen. Minimize moments of leaving if you can. This is a form of lowering demands on your child’s nervous system.

(2) Identify what and who, other than you, regulates your child.

You know what your regulated kiddo looks & feels like... deep focus or upbeat happy play, relaxed face and body. Think “safe & social.” (Also called the ventral vagal state in polyvagal theory).

What/who else, other than you, helps your kid get there? Another parent, grandparent, favorite teacher? A TV show? A videogame? Deep play with their special interest?

If you have a young PDAer in burnout you may be it for a while – in which case you need to make cost/benefit decisions about how much you can avoid leaving the child to help their nervous system heal, & how much you need to leave & likely trigger panic in order to meet other valid needs of your own.

(5) Afterwards, give the child language for their panic in a calm, connected moment.

“I see how hard it is for you when I leave. I really get that. It makes sense, and (if they have an Autistic and/or PDA identity) it’s actually common for Autistic/PDA kids. I also know it won’t always be this hard. It’s something your brain is working on as you grow up.

(6) Give the child opportunities for control

Especially if your child’s threat response at you leaving gets manifested as anger, allow them to equalize (gain control over you) in some safe way in the moment you’re leaving. Allow extra time for this! Can they block the door and make you a little late? Can they work with their babysitter on a prank for you when you get home? Can they hide a favorite thing, without hurting it, & play hot/cold when you see them next?

I offer private coaching for parents & spouses of PDAers, and for PDA adults.



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