Parents and children end up being separated for many
reasons. Parents die, go away to war for extended times, and have work
responsibilities far from home.
Sometimes parents are separated from their children because the parents have broken a law resulting in extended detention in a correctional facility or even deportation if they are an illegal immigrant. Of course, some parent-child bonds are severed by death during natural disasters, wars, and acts of violence.
Sometimes a child is left without a biological parent
but is highly attached to a loving family member or other caregiver thus, their
separation experience may not be as traumatic as if they had no loving family
or other caregiver following the separation.
Children who felt close to the parent they lost may display a range of anxious behavior patterns and sometimes express anger in
words and actions. Separation anxiety is common in young children
who cling to
their parent or other caregiver for security when around strangers or other
perceived threats (e.g., barking dogs, loud noises).
But after age three, healthy children usually appear more confident at some distance from their parents. They
learn to enjoy friends and adapt to school knowing their parents will be there at
the end of the day.
Secure children who have good experiences with grandparents, or other caregivers, can also feel loved and cared for when biological parents
are away for extended periods of time. When children feel highly connected to another
adult, a parent may feel more anxious than the child due to the separation. Thus, we must also consider the effects of separation on the mother, father, or other primary carer.
Some children continue to experience significant distress
when separated from a close parent regardless of the quality of the new caregiver. Relatives and other foster parents can provide a loving home for children without parents yet the effects of separation will still be felt.
For example, some children express considerable worry of harm to the absent
parent, they may avoid sleepovers at friends’ houses, nightmares can include
separation themes, and they may refuse to leave home, a place of perceived
safety, which can interfere with school attendance.
When children are separated from their parents, they may
also experience a range of health concerns like headaches and stomachaches.
When children show high anxiety linked to separation from
their parent or other caring adult, they may also experience depression and
develop obsessive-compulsive disorder. As you might expect, some separation
events are highly traumatic resulting in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Distressing memories can be set-off by a variety of present
experiences that act like a trigger for the separation event. Examples of triggers include the
smells of war, a place that looks like the place where they lost a parent, a
voice that sounds like the person who caused the trauma or the parent they
lost, and other sounds linked to the trauma like sirens, explosions, and even
Helping people of any age cope with trauma requires a
sensitivity to the full range of human memory components such as visual
imagery, words and phrases, smells, feelings, places, and even certain types of
touch or other physical contact.
We should state the obvious that children need loving care
to develop into secure and healthy adults. Children can survive unpleasant and
even dangerous surroundings when they are loved and nurtured by a trusted adult
who either is, or functions as, a parent. The warm embrace of a loving parent
serves as a psychological shield during times of stress.
Physical punishment can make matters worse. Children in
distress may respond to more structure and clearly defined expectations than
other children. Discipline programs will need to include many positive messages
and other positive consequences when children demonstrate improvements in
Keep in mind that spirituality is very important to many families. For example, most Americans are Christian. And most people in the affiliate with a religion. Parenting and discipline ought to consider the child's family values--including those values linked to their faith.
Caregivers will need reminders to avoid taking the harsh words
of a distressed child as a personal attack.
Most of us can have a better relationship with children when
we listen to their stories. We need not avoid uncomfortable topics but we ought
not to push children into talking about disturbing issues until they are ready.
Distressed children may need gentle reassurance that uncomfortable feelings are
normal. The issue of readiness is also important for counselors and psychotherapist
to keep in mind for children and adults who have experienced traumatic
separations. Although it is natural to think traumatized children need counseling, they may not be ready to talk about their experiences.
As with any parenting effort, consistency and predictability
are helpful. Most children benefit from routine mealtimes and bedtimes. Tell
children when changes in routine are needed. Children are not the same. Secure
children may thrive in open environments but others thrive when daily activities
follow familiar routines as if the structure provides psychological security in
an otherwise chaotic world.
Caregivers should make notes of the trauma triggers
and seek help as needed to help children learn ways to manage their response to
such triggers. Some triggers may result in anger and aggression, which can make
parenting difficult. Consulting a professional may help parents brainstorm ways
to keep the distressed child and others safe while helping the child find safe ways to express their distress and anger.
When children show symptoms of severe anxiety and related
conditions like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, then professional
consultation may be needed. Treatment can include connecting with loving
relatives, developing friendships, providing for basic needs, attending psychotherapy,
and in some cases, taking medication. Psychologists and other clinicians can
often help caregivers develop a treatment plan.
As needed, seek treatment from experienced clinicians who
have experience with children. The ideas in this post may not apply to the
needs of specific children or adults and are not intended to replace the advice
of psychologists, counselors, social workders, and other professionals.
Resources- Learn More about Anxiety and Related Conditions
Anxiety in Children (APA
A Kids Guide to Separation (APA
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Families (APA
I provide workshops and seminars but no longer provide psychotherapy.