While many children do quite well with longer separations from their parents, we are in favor of avoiding risks, if possible, when it comes to children’s emotional development. 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. Research shows subtle ways infants and preschoolers may reject parents on reunion, and even settle into new patterns of behavior that could last into adulthood.
Parents have the least flexibility with separations during the period from six months to two years, 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.
Why are children vulnerable to prolonged separations?
Many psychologists and psychoanalysts believe 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. Such 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. Protections can take many other forms as well, but all forms cause 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. But 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.
There are steps one can take to decrease the chance that a prolonged separation will impact a child negatively. It is helpful to keep the child in their own home and provide them with familiar caretakers, such as relatives. If the child is a bit older, say a toddler or preschooler, parents can provide them with reminders by calling on the phone, or by leaving reminders such as a favorite snack they’ve have cooked, or a small gift that refers to some shared special activity.
Please use these guidelines flexibly in accordance with your best judgment about your child. For example, you may be able to leave your child at three years old, for even a three day trip if he or she will be staying at home, if they have been developing confidently, and will be staying at home with a grandmother with whom they have a close relationship. It would also help if your child had a recent experience of staying with Grandmother overnight, had a sibling with him or her, had heard about some details of your trip over a period of time, and knows he or she will 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 healthy confidence and self-esteem.
© 2017 All Rights Reserved. The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood. Originally published in 2009.