Maternal Separation Anxiety: It’s Hard to Let Go

At many overnight camps, this past Sunday was visiting day.

If you went to visit your child, you should have found a markedly more relaxed, sunburnt, mosquito-bitten child from the one you put on the camp bus. Your child was probably eager to share a dozen or more stories of new experiences she had—the zip line across the lake, the rock climbing wall, or the camping trip during a severe thunder storm. Despite begging you for goodies and money to replenish her canteen fund, she’s clearly a more independent child. Be happy; that was the goal of sending her.

But enough about your child—how did you feel during the camp visit?

Did you feel rejection when she ran to her friends? Did you feel that old familiar anxiety, heart palpitations, racing pulse, and deep sadness pulling away from the camp? Did you think about bringing her home?

It’s normal to experience some degree of “childsickness,” according to Michael Thompson, PhD and author of Happy and Homesick: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow.


But, “it’s important for a parent to master his or her own emotions.” Most of your child’s sweetest memories, nearly 80% of them, will occur away from you. Learning to let them go is healthy for their development. But, if you can’t manage that anxiety and depression, you may be suffering from maternal separation anxiety.

According to the National Institutes of Health, maternal separation anxiety is a real diagnosis. Similar to separation anxiety, it can cause periods of anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and sadness when a parent is separated from her child, even for short periods of time.

Left untreated, it can result in an unhealthy attachment in the parent/child relationship. In a study done by researchers, mothers with maternal separation anxiety frequently became controlling parents. This maladaptive parenting style has been linked to separation anxiety, low self-esteem, and competency issues in the child.

If you think that you might have maternal separation anxiety, what should you do?

By sending your child to overnight camp, you’re on the right path. If you’ve done your research on the camp and feel a level of comfort, just remind yourself that all is well. Your child is in a safe, structured, supportive environment and is learning to be more independent and self-reliant.

If you have physical symptoms—racing pulse, sleeplessness, or heart palpitations—see your doctor. You might be having an anxiety attack which unchecked can compromise your health and well-being. Consider meeting with a therapist, one who can suggest positive, productive strategies for managing those parent-child separations. If your child senses your sadness and depression, she will be uncomfortable leaving for camp.

Most of all, nurture yourself. During those separations, take a Zumba class, schedule time with your friends, join a book club, or take a course. If you’re a happy, healthier parent, your child will feel freer about leaving.

H., & Sung, J. (2008). Separation anxiety in first-time mothers: Maternal parenting efficacy and infant affect as contributors. Infant Behavior and Development, 31, 294-301.

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About Merle Huerta

Merle Huerta is a staff writer with, a teacher, tutor, a retired army wife, and a mother of a blended family of 13.