Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety

A foster son headed for college fears leaving the best home he ever had

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 07/31/2014

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Dear Patti,

To look at me, you would never know that the first 11 years of my life were violent and scary. I can’t tell you how many foster homes I was in and out of until finally a wonderful couple, Bill and Anna, took me in. They hadn’t been able to have children of their own, but they poured all of their love and encouragement and support into raising me and providing every advantage to get a good education, excel in sports and feel secure.

I will be leaving for the East Coast the middle of August to start college (I earned full-tuition sports scholarship). Anna has been spending every weekend buying me linens and dishes, and Bill is going to drive me back there so he can bring along new bedroom furniture we just got at IKEA.
As excited as I am to play sports and earn a degree, it’s going to be very hard to leave the only real home and family I’ve ever had. I’m anxious I’ll never be loved this much again. Anna says that because I’m tall, smart and good-looking, all the girls on campus will want to get to know me. The truth is that I’m afraid to trust anyone new after all the early years of being hurt and getting rejected.
— Jeremy

Dear Jeremy,

First of all, from the unconditional love and closeness you’ve established with your remarkable foster parents, you’ve learned that physical and emotional contact with others is essential to health and joy. This corresponds with the need for belonging somewhere, be it in the context of a romantic relationship, a family unit, membership in a social group, or being part of a community.
The freedom to express your feelings is your birthright, and whether it’s self-love, love of others, or passion, the anxieties you’re experiencing will dissipate as you discover — and get to know —kindred spirits in this exciting new chapter of your life.

As you take the first step of your journey, it’s important to remember that nothing stands between your having close and meaningful relationships except the emotional/defensive armor that you may have donned in childhood to help you cope with an unhappy succession of disappointments and fears. If people have been traumatized through instances of abuse or neglect, it’s not uncommon to become conditioned to repress their feelings.

Your early feelings of vulnerability, betrayal and heartbreak may still be lingering and inducing destructive thoughts, despite the loving home Bill and Anna have provided. In addition, foster children sometimes experience severe separation anxiety and may revert to prior coping mechanisms such an anger, clinginess or withdrawal. In spite of the loving home you’ve been provided, the fear of closeness may still overwhelm you and induce destructive thoughts that love is dangerous or leaves you too vulnerable. You may at times perceive love and passion as impossible goals that are synonymous with heartbreak. Bill and Anna could be equally confused if it seems you’re suddenly pushing them away as a result of not knowing how to separate and still stay close.     

As your departure draws near, it’s important that your family and friends reinforce a sense of connectivity by sharing stories of fun times, looking at pictures and talking about your dreams of finding your purpose in the world. You should also be encouraged to pay attention to your feelings and to nurture your physical and emotional well-being in order to override any negative messaging that you’re not deserving of love, admiration and happiness.

If you can take a moment to see yourself through the eyes of Anna and Bill — that you are special and worthy of being loved — it will be easier to find and express your authentic self and ultimately become whoever you truly want to be.

Lastly, how could you find better role models and a testament to the power of love than to remember all of the things these two have done for you over the years in order to send forth into the world such an accomplished and fine young man.


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email Visit her website,


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