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Lengthy Separations Between Child and Parent
We had the opportunity to answer a particularly important question that a parent asked us regarding a long trip away from their young toddler. This topic is one that is insufficiently discussed in our opinion, and we for that reason we were particularly pleased to be able to address it. We believe that our response to this family would be relevant for many other families facing a similar decision.
Q: My husband and I have the opportunity to take a week-long trip to Hawaii! We have not been away from our fourteen-month old son for even one night. Both my husband and I are a bit worried about whether a trip of this length could affect our son. Our friends are encouraging us to take the trip. Can you advise?
A: You have asked an extremely important question and we encourage your caution in this situation. We will provide some background that will help to explain our concerns about a separation of this length from your 14-month-old child. Please keep in mind that everything that follows describes typical patterns; some children follow different but fully healthy paths.
Although infants begin to become attached to parent(s) within hours after birth, infants less than six months old usually have minor reactions to separations from parents, because they have not yet formed exclusive attachments. A young infant will generally accept substitute caretakers easily as long as they are able to provide satisfactory care. The situation changes around six months: the infant begins to prefer just one or two caregivers, although substitutes are fine for part of the day. Generally, the infant is particularly connected with one of the parents, typically but not always the mother. We will call that parent for the purpose of having a shorthand language, the primary parent. Infants six months and older may respond to separations from their primary parent of more than eighteen hours with irritability, bodily distress, and eventually a subdued mood that may be an infant's version of depression.
Parents have the least flexibility about separations during the period from six months to two years, your son's age, when there is a strong attachment to parent(s), and little capacity to understand or bear pain without it reaching excessive proportions.
We recommend that the primary parent avoid separations over 12 hours from their children under the age of one. It is probably acceptable, (although not ideal,) for you to be away from your 1-year-old overnight, in other words for 24 hours or so, particularly if the child remains with a caretaker with whom they have a close relationship. A 2- and 3-year-old can tolerate an overnight away from parents while with a familiar but not close caretaker, and a 4- and 5-year-old should be able to tolerate a weekend or maybe even a little more away from parents.
Many children indeed do quite well with longer separations than we recommend. Nevertheless, we are in favor of avoiding risks, if possible, when it comes to children's emotional development. The reasons to be concerned primarily come from observational research and long clinical experience. The observational research shows the subtle ways that the infants and preschoolers may reject parents on reunion, and even settle into new patterns of behavior. The clinical experience shows that certain kinds of emotional problems of some older children or adults can be best understood if we assume that part of their difficulties stems from personality shaping in response to prolonged early childhood separations from parents.
Why are children vulnerable to prolonged separations? Many psychologists and psychoanalysts believe that children begin to construct comforting mental images of their parents around the age of six months. During the first two years of life, these images may slip away from the child if they are not regularly reinforced by the physical presence of the parent. The loss of these images can leave a child feeling alone, afraid, depressed, and abandoned. Furthermore, since young children generally feel responsible for events, they may feel guilt about having "caused" their parent to leave them. The guilt, fear, depression, and even anger can be so painful that the child develops mechanisms to protect against experiencing such pain in the future. Some children might become anxious and clingy, afraid to venture off from a home base that does not seem secure. Other children might become defiant and prematurely independent, because self-sufficiency can protect against the possibilities of being hurt again in an intimate relationship with appropriate dependency. The protections can take many other forms as well, all forms causing difficulties that limit a child's successful emotional development.
Sometimes, parents return from prolonged separations and are told that their children did very well during their absence. Indeed, that may have been the case. However, appearances in young children can be deceiving. We must remember that some young children who are upset inside can function quite well if they are receiving sufficient support and diversion. An illustration of this situation sometimes occurs in the tragic situation when a preschool age child loses a parent to death. Other relatives step in to comfort and divert the child. The child may continue going to preschool and playing; it might seem as if the young child is reacting only minimally to the death. Of course, this is illusory, and the child's powerful reactions eventually become evident in some form. Similarly, the short term reactions of the toddler and preschooler to a prolonged separation from parent(s) may be very different from the questions, anxieties, and personality changes with which they are left.
There are steps we can take to decrease the chance that a prolonged separation will impact a child negatively. It would be helpful to keep your child in his own home and provide him with familiar caretakers. When he is a toddler and preschooler, you can provide him with reminders of you and his father by calling on the phone, or by his being given reminders of you in your absence such as a favorite snack that you have cooked, or a small gift that refers to some special activity that you share with him. Please use our guidelines flexibly in accordance with your best judgment about your child. For example, if when your child is three, you might be able to leave comfortably for even a three day trip if he would be staying at home if he has been developing confidently and will be staying at home with his grandmother with whom he has a close relationship. It would also help if he had a recent experience of staying with his grandmother overnight, had a sibling with him, had heard about some details of your trip over a period of time, and would be receiving phone calls and other reminders during your absence.
Parenthood brings many obligations and protecting children from prolonged separations is one of the more important of them. You will be rewarded for your willingness to limit your time away from your young child with the knowledge that you are promoting the development of his healthy confidence and self-esteem.
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