Separation Anxiety and Bipolar in Kids

I never wanted a lunchbox in kindergarten. I didn’t want anything that was so permanent. I only wanted to take a brown paper bag. And, when it came to what I allowed my mom to put inside of it, well that was where my mom started running into issues with my teachers. I would cry if my mom put anything more than half of a sandwich, a tiny handful of crackers and a small juice box in that bag. I didn’t want any more food than that inside. In my five-year-old mind, the more the food inside that bag, the longer it meant that I had to stay there at school. My mom had to explain this to teachers many times, as they always addressed the problem that I never had enough to eat. My saying to them that I wasn’t hungry was not a satisfactory answer. But really, would that be enough for anyone to hear a child with such little food say? They thought something was wrong at home, until finally my mom was able to fully explain in detail what was going on. It was no longer questioned after that.

I had a severe case of separation anxiety as a child, and it lasted throughout my high school years. Since my diagnosis, I have learned more about the signs of bipolar, and I have found interesting articles on bipolar in children. Bipolar presents itself differently in children than it does in adults. One such symptom can be separation anxiety. On the right hand side of my blog, there is a link to information on bipolar in children. In addition, there is an article on separation anxiety and how it can relate to bipolar in children. That article is to which I’m going to be referring in this post.

This article defines separation anxiety as “the excessive anxiety that occurs when a child has to leave the home or the person to whom she is very attached.” It’s normal for young babies and toddlers to be attached to their parents, but it becomes an issue when that attachment extends into the older childhood years. By the time a child reaches school age, he or she should be able to leave home and the parent(s) to whom he or she is attached. So, when a child cannot make this separation, it is then that separation anxiety becomes the probable reason.

The Goodbye Fence

Kindergarten was an entirely new experience. I was entering a world that I had never seen before. I didn’t always cry when my mom would drop me off, but I always wanted to be home. My teachers were kind, I had friends, and I enjoyed playing with them, but it didn’t match the comfort that I had when I was home in my mom’s loving care. But, I soon found a way to help myself say goodbye to my mom in the mornings. The school had a fence through which you could see the driveway as parents drove off. So, every morning, I would run to that fence and stand there. As soon as I would see my mom and dad (my dad was driving, as my mom doesn’t drive), I would then wave and smile. It made me feel good to see my parents, especially my mom, one last time before the day began without her.

I did this every day for months, until one random day when I was told that my morning ritual was no longer being allowed. My mom had taken me into the school to drop me off, when the teacher told her that I was no longer allowed to wave at the fence, due to the fact that other children were now starting to do the same thing. It was stated as being a danger for children to be so close to the fence, since it was by a driveway with cars. I was devastated. I began to cry and my mom just tried to comfort me. She held me and gave me a long hug and said that it would be ok, and she’d see me soon. But, that is not enough to calm a child who has just been told she could not “truly” say goodbye to her mom. To me, my goodbye was not complete. My mom eventually left, and I was forced to stay inside the classroom until she and my dad drove away.

What those teachers did not realize was that it was crushing for them to do that to me. What compounded the issue was the fact that the rule was enforced suddenly, and without warning. My mom was not even able to properly prepare me for this change in rules prior to my going to school that day. From how I see it, they just viewed it as a “child will get over it” type of situation.

The Wink Goodbye

I could not stop crying that day. The tears kept flowing and they wouldn’t stop. Finally, as I sat in my Kindergarten classroom, we were all supposed to be working on an assignment that was given to us. Everyone was quietly working. Meanwhile, I was at my seat, wiping my unending tears on my sweater’s sleeve. I felt as if I was in mourning. I did not recognize that emotion at that young age. But, as that same reaction came out in future years due to the same separation anxiety, I could now say that it indeed felt like I was mourning. Eventually, my kindergarten teacher came up to me and asked me why I was crying so much. I could barely get the words out, but tried to explain to her. She just said that it was a rule that was meant for my safety. She still didn’t understand that it was more than just saying goodbye at the fence. As I look back on that experience, I realize that the wave goodbye was a final reassurance that my mom and dad were still really there after they left me at school. I was five-years-old and it was what I needed. Not having that wave goodbye cut that security out of my life.

Going home that day was a blessing. It was a miserable day and I was so ecstatic to see my mom. My mom and I talked about what had happened that day and she and I began to come up with a way for us to deal with the new rule. That is when we came up with “The Wink Goodbye” tactic.

The way it worked was that I would stay on the playground, away from the fence, after she dropped me off. Then, as she and my dad drove off, and I could see their vehicle pass by in the distance, I would wink in that direction, and she would do the same while looking through the fence as they passed. I could not really see my mom winking, but my five-year-old brain created the image, so as she drove past, I could indeed “see” her winking at me. That was our goodbye each and everyday, for the rest of my kindergarten experience. Best of all, the teachers never knew about it. I wasn’t going to let them take that away from me too.

It Just Didn’t Go Away

The separation anxiety never went away. If anything, it just got worse as I got older. At least as a young child, people look at you and think that it’s understandable. However, when you’re twelve and crying hysterically for your mom and dad, it becomes an entirely different picture.

I slept in my parents’ room until I was eleven years old. I slept on this fold-up style couch/chair. But, thanks to my bed wetting (which lasted until eleven as well), I kind of… um… ruined it. So after that, I moved to sleeping bags. I just couldn’t get myself to sleep by myself. I tried… boy did I try! I would tell my mom, “Tonight is the night, Mom! I’m moving into my room.” I would feel pumped and ready to go, but by the time nighttime came, I was in awful tears and in a depressed state. My mom would come into my room and say, “Do you want to come back in our room?” I would and I’d be calm again. I don’t even know what it was really that kept me from being able to sleep by myself.

The Hysterical Bed-Destroyer

I had a lot of fear as a child. I had a lot of worries too, mainly about my parents. I always worried about losing them, and it was a thought that was regularly on my mind. The OCD did not help any of that. But, then there was the strong desire to move into my room. I wanted to be a “big girl” and sleep in my own room, but each time the night came, I just couldn’t do it. So, I don’t really know what was the driving force behind my inability to sleep alone.

The article “Separation Anxiety and Bipolar Disorder” that I have referred to, discusses that a child may become hysterical if forced to stay by his or herself. That really hit home for me when I first read it. I remember this one time when I was around nine-years-old, and I had the urge to clap one night. It was bedtime and I had a strong urge to clap really loudly. So, I did. Well, my mom said, “Go to sleep. You do that again, then you can sleep in your own room.” What she didn’t realize (and what I also didn’t realize ‘cause I had no idea of its existence) was that it was my OCD that was making me do it. I had this urge and it was like I had to satisfy the urge otherwise things felt wrong for me. Life was wrong if I didn’t clap. I know that sounds completely absurd, but that is how I saw it that night. So, I clapped again.

It… kinda looks like me that night.

Well, my mom made good on her threat. She pulled me up from the floor and walked me to my bedroom. She then left me in there to sleep alone. That was all it took to flip the switch in my head. I was suddenly thrown into a rage. I started screaming and crying. I was hitting the walls. I was throwing objects around my room and making a complete mess. I pulled all of my blankets and bedding off of my bed and threw them on the floor. I then got the mattress and pulled it as hard as I could until it slid off and onto the floor. All that was missing, was me turning green while my muscles tore through my clothing. I was angry and throwing a nine-year-old-sized tantrum. Except the tantrum wasn’t that of a child trying to get her way. It was that of one in fear. I was suddenly thrown into the lonely environment. It didn’t matter how familiar it was, because it was not comforting to me at that time of night. It was frightening and I felt alone and angry because of it. All of my fears, worries, and worst of all my OCD thoughts, were my roommates, and without my mom and dad, I was all by myself to deal with their mental torture.

My mom finally came back into my bedroom. She saw the mess and I truly think she would have spanked me hard, if she had not been so tired. My mom spanked me as a child, but I rarely required one; a scolding or mere look would usually do it for me. But, that night, the frustration on her face was one that, to this day, makes me think that she wanted to smack me. Instead, she looked at me and told me to pick up all the bedding, move the mattress back onto the bed and then go to sleep in their room. The rest of the mess I would have to clean up the next day. So, I did what she said, and off I went to their bedroom.

The Retreat

Unfortunately, these moments of anxiety did not leave as I entered my teens. By my senior year of high school (12th grade, 17-years-old), I was still unable to leave my mom and home.

I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, and part of the requirements to graduate, was to attend four class retreats (one each year). The 9th and 10th grade retreats were easy, since they lasted half a day and a full day respectively. The 11th and 12th grade retreats were a different story, though. My 11th grade retreat was going to be an overnighter, and my 12th grade one was to be four days and three nights away from home. Needless to say, I was terrified when I learned of this requirement.

When the time came for me to go to my overnight 11th grade retreat, I did not want to go. I begged my mom to let me pretend that I was sick. She said that I could do that if I wanted, because she knew how awful such an experience would be for me emotionally. But, then she gave me an option. She said, “You can either pretend your sick for this one, and be forced to go to the four-day retreat next year, or go this year, and skip next year’s retreat.” It wasn’t like I could skip both retreats, as that would draw attention from my teachers. Talk about a suck-filled decision to have to make. Either way, I was going to be gone overnight. Yes, the obvious choice is to go on the one night retreat and skip the other, but when even one night away makes you physically and emotionally ill, that’s still not an attractive option.

However, I knew what I had to do. So, I forced myself on the one-night retreat. It was God who helped me to get through that. As I stood at the back door, my dad waited in his work truck. My mom told me to be strong and not cry in front of him because he would have just turned the car around and brought me back home. He would not have dropped me off at school in an emotional mess like that. So, I stood there, staring out the door. My mom kept looking at me, just encouraging me to take that step outside of the door. It was such a struggle. I was trying to catch my breath and gain my composure. I then took a deep breath and walked right out of the door, without looking back. I still remember my mom saying, “Good girl” to me as I left the house.

The drive to school was hard. I was trying not to cry in the truck, but I couldn’t hold it in. I just kept looking out of the passenger side window, so my dad would not see me. I think he knew, but also knew that I was trying not to show him. Finally, I got to school and continued to cry in the bathroom. I remember girls in there thinking that something had happened because I wasn’t someone who cried in front of people. I always hid my tears as a kid, and still try my best to do so. But, the “mournful” emotions that would overwhelm me during those anxiety-filled experiences were too powerful to fight.

The hour ride to the retreat location was another stressful one. I was in the school bus and crying my eyes out. I was trying to be quiet ‘cause I didn’t want all of my classmates to see me. Everyone else was laughing and excited, whereas I was an emotional mess. My friend was sitting next to me and kept trying to tell me jokes to cheer me up. She tried so hard, and managed to get me to crack a smile a few times, but I always reverted back to tears. The entire day, I had to keep excusing myself to go to the restroom so that I could cry in private. At lunch I was crying uncontrollably and couldn’t eat. One of my other friends asked, “You miss your mom, don’t you?” I couldn’t even answer, just nod. It was the same story, all day long, that is until dinnertime.

This is where something that has always baffled me occurred. The anxiety disappeared… and I mean completely. This is something that has always happened, even as a child when I was staying at family’s houses when my parents would go away. The anxiety would just disappear by the time evening came. It was then that I would realize just how close I was to going home. The nighttime had finally arrived, and I knew that once I fell asleep that the hours would fly by, and I’d awake to the day on which I’d be going home. Often times, I wouldn’t even sleep. I would stay up all night and watch television, as I was not tired. I just wanted to be home so badly. So, when this same thing happened the night of my retreat, I was not surprised. It was then, that I was able to finally fully appreciate the experience that the retreat was supposed to be giving me. The second day was a much more relaxed and enjoyable day, as I knew soon I would be home.

As for the 12th grade retreat, I followed through on my plan and pretended that I was sick for it. To make up for my absence, I had to do additional community service hours (in addition to the required 100 – 25 per year – that our school required for graduation), but that was fine by me.

The experiences that I had with my separation anxiety go on and on, but there is no reason to list them all, since they all are pretty much variations of the ones I’ve mentioned.

So, Did I Have Bipolar Back Then?

Who knows? My psychiatrist and psychologist both think it’s very possible, considering this and other issues that I experienced as a child. However, they also know that they cannot be certain, as they could not observe me back then. Separation Anxiety is a common symptom in children with bipolar. But, children can have separation anxiety and not be bipolar. So, unless someone creates a time machine for me to go back in time, then I’ll probably never know.

I will say this, though. Bipolar or not as a child, I was indeed severely anxious. If you know a child who is exhibiting such anxiety, then please address it with his or her doctor. I did not know what was wrong with me as a kid, but I knew something was not right, as other kids weren’t as emotional as I was in such situations.

Please don’t ignore the signs in your kids.


6 thoughts on “Separation Anxiety and Bipolar in Kids

  1. Oh my goodness, this really has struck a chord with me- particularly the part about worrying about your parents’ safety and where you described yourself raging when you were made to go in your bedroom on your own.

    When I was a kid, Mum locked me in my bedroom a couple of times when I was naughty (can’t remember what I’d done) and I still have traumatic memories about the experience.I was terror-stricken. I also really struggled to go to school and would feign illness a lot- I was soooo anxious. I had no idea that others with Bipolar also experienced this.

    Really interesting to read. Thanks.

    • I’m so sorry that you had such traumatizing experiences as a child. It is a truly frightening experience that our parents and other adults didn’t understand. I remember feeling so depressed about it sometimes because my friends would all have sleepovers and I could never get myself to go. When I first learned about the separation anxiety and bipolar connection, I was also surprised. I did not realize that was the case either. It sure did help all of the pieces just fall together though. It makes so much sense considering how my anxiety still exists now, but in a different capacity.

      Thank you so much for reading my post and sharing your experiences. I can read all of the articles and research in the world, but what truly helps is to read a real person’s experiences and know that I’m not alone. Thank you for following my blog also. I appreciate the interest! 🙂

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