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Caregiving

Navigating Parent-Child Separations

How to support a family when a caregiver leaves.

Key points

  • Babies and young children may be separated from a caregiver for many reasons, including deployment, divorce, and incarceration.
  • These separations can negatively affect the caregiver-child bond as well as the developing brain.
  • Caregivers can take steps to protect their relationship with their child, such as communicating openly and maintaining routines.

This post was co-authored by Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW, and Rahil Briggs, Psy.D.

Deployment, divorce, or incarceration are more common than you might think, and you will likely work with a family who is experiencing a parent-child separation, or you may be going through one yourself. In 2018, over 2.7 million children had a parent who was incarcerated (Barnert, 2018). Numbers from the middle of the last decade estimated that over 1 million children were affected by divorce over a several-year period (Cohen et al., 2016). And among military families, over 2 million American children had a parent deployed between 2001 and 2013 (Clever and Segal, 2013).

So how can we best support a baby when one of their primary caregivers leaves? No matter the reason for parent-child separation, it is vital to understand how these separations may affect growing brains and what practices and approaches help to support connection and stability in the caregiver-child relationship, and by extension, lay that pivotal foundation of healthy brain development for babies.

The unparalleled importance of early relationships

As social worker and researcher Brené Brown likes to say, “We’re wired for connection.” And as influential pediatrician Donald Winnicott said, “There is no such thing as a baby; there is a baby and someone.” In an optimal caregiving environment, caregivers are safe, stable, and nurturing, and babies trust their caregivers and learn to rely on them to meet their many needs. This environment and these interactions help to support secure attachment. Babies receive input from daily serve-and-return interactions, which contribute to the growth and development of their brain—creating over 1 million neural connections per second during the first three years of life.

Babies and young children may be separated from a caregiver for any number of reasons, including deployment, divorce, or incarceration. All of these occurrences can be considered Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). It has become clear over the past several decades that any long-term separation from a parent or caregiver can be a challenge. Hence, the relationships babies have with those who remain are crucial for their development. You can help families foster those healthy connections amid a parent-child separation.

What happens during separations?

When these foundational relationships are disrupted—for any reason—the impact manifest in several ways for babies and toddlers:

  • Increased stress response and anxiety. Because the youngest children don’t have the cognitive ability to understand exactly what is happening when they are separated from a caregiver, why it’s happening, or an understanding of time and how much will pass before they are reunited, it’s difficult to prepare them or mitigate their stress with information. This can lead to higher stress levels and even anxiety (Osofsky and Chartrand, 2013).
  • Diminished trust. Separations are difficult to prepare for with young children, so a caregiver’s departure may feel abrupt. This may lead to a decrease in the child’s growing ability to trust these primary relationships (Osofsky, 2018).
  • Dysregulation of emotions and behavior. When a caregiver is deployed, it’s not only the babies, toddlers, and older children in the family that are affected, but the other caregiver(s) as well, increasing the need for support to the whole family system (Osofsky, 2018). This phenomenon is likely to occur in other types of separations, too, making the need for family support in instances of incarceration or divorce just as important.

Preparation can be prevention

It is not always possible to prepare for separation or reunification. But when it is an option, it is highly recommended you help prepare the child. This may include the following practices:

  • Talk about it. For children who are old enough to understand a narrative (typically around 3 years old), it can be helpful to speak in advance about what will happen and how they might feel (Walsh and Rosenblum, 2018). The parent who will remain at home might say, “Mommy will be away for six months, and that’s a long time. We will see her on video chat, but not in real life until she returns.” Or, in the case of divorce, “Daddy will be at his new home across town; you will see him this weekend.” Pre-teach with emotional literacy and intelligence in mind: “You, your sister, and I will all feel sad and maybe even angry at times while Mommy is away. That’s normal, and I will be with you through your upset,” or “You might miss Daddy, and I will take care of you until you see him again on Saturday.”
  • Make a plan to stay connected. The caregiver who is leaving may want to create some recordings for their children to listen to while they are away—even if it is just for alternate weeks due to shared custody. A child and caregiver can exchange small touchstones (uniform or insignia patches, stuffed animals, or items of clothing). If possible, they can share photos or videos that include these items as a way to feel connected (Osofsky and Chartrand, 2013). When feasible, connecting electronically via video chat is recommended.
  • Follow up with an emotional and physical presence. With one parent away, the remaining caregiver must take time to listen to young children and respond to the emotions and worries they may be experiencing (Osofsky and Chartrand, 2013). It’s important to answer any questions in simple and straightforward terms, validate all emotions, and assure children that they are safe and will be well cared for (Osofsky and Chartrand, 2013). Keep in mind that babies and toddlers mostly share their feelings through their behavior and play rather than through words.
  • Keep family routines and household management consistent. Young children will feel especially reassured and more relaxed if regular routines do not change. Inserting a ritual into the day that acknowledges the absent parent can be a supportive practice. For example, a child might kiss a photo of their parent, read them a story, pray for them, or listen to a recording of the parent’s voice (Osofsky and Chartrand, 2013).
  • Reunify with intention. Whether the separation is weeks or years long, aim to prepare young children for reunification. When a caregiver has been away for a long time, it can be an adjustment. Even though there is likely relief and joy, there is also potential stress as the family reconfigures (Walsh and Rosenblum, 2018). Make space for disruptive behaviors from children and grief from the returning caregiver—they have potentially missed out on a lot while they were absent. They may need to get to know their child anew and adjust their parenting to a child’s new developmental phase (Walsh and Rosenblum, 2018).

Promote resilience

While it is not ideal for a primary caregiver to be absent from a child’s life for long periods, it is a protective factor for them if the remaining primary caregiver is steady, consistent, and present, especially concerning emotions and self-regulation (Tomlin, et al., 2020). In situations of divorce or family separation, children may experience long-lasting impacts; however, most adjust over time and function well, especially when parents remain supportive and emotionally available (Cohen et al., 2016). Don’t underestimate the positive impact providers and practitioners can have. Through a two-generation approach, modeling, and a parallel process that brings support and empathy, families can still thrive.

References

Barnert, E.S. and Chung, P.J. (2018). Responding to Parental Incarceration As a Priority Pediatric Health Issue. Pediatrics. 142 (3), DOI: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2018-1923

Cohen, G.J., Weitzman, C. C., and COMMITTEE ON PSYCHOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF CHILD AND FAMILY HEALTH and SECTION ON DEVELOPMENTAL AND BEHAVIORAL PEDIATRICS. (2016). Helping Families Deal with Divorce and Separation. Pediatrics. 138 (6). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016-3020

Clever, M. and Segal, D.R. (2013). The Demographics of Military Children and Families. Princeton-Brookings. The Future of Children: Military Children and Families. 23 (2), 13-39.

Osofsky, J. D. (2018). The Traumatic Effects of Parent-Child Separation and the Importance of the Relationship. ZERO TO THREE Journal. 39 (1), 83-8.

Osofsky, J.D. and Chartrand, M.M. (2013). Military Children from Birth to Five Years. Princeton-Brookings. The Future of Children: Military Children and Families. 23 (2), 61-77.

Tomlin, A., Ruprecht, K., and Artitti, J.A. (2020). Promoting Resilience With Children Impacted by Parental Incarceration. ZERO TO THREE Journal. 40 (4), 5-13.

Walsh, T.B. and Rosenblum, K.L. (2018). Separating and Reconnecting: Family Relationships Across Deployment and Reintegration. ZERO TO THREE Journal. 39 (1), 68-73.

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