When Parents and Kids are Separated

Some children need extra support when they're facing a separation from their parents, even if it's just a brief time away. Read on for strategies on how to ease the separation. 

By Amelia Baladez, Early Childhood Educator and Leticia Sullivan, Licensed Clinical Consultant and Trainer | Aug 01, 2016
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Of course parents can’t be with their children every minute of every single day. There will be times when parents are separated from their children. It could be a very short separation, like for a doctor’s appointment, or it could be longer, such as a parent going out of town for a trip or to take care of a sick relative. How well children survive these separations from their parents has to do with how strong the attachment relationship is between a child and parent.

A child with a secure attachment to his parent may have no issue at all when his mom leaves him with his grandma so she can go to the doctor’s office for an hour. He can trust that his mom will go to the doctor’s as planned, and then return to pick him up.

But there are many parents who have had challenging experiences in life and have not been able to attach to their children in a loving, caring way. Many factors can impact this – health problems, financial stressors, environmental changes such as moving to a new house. On top of this, each child in a family will have his own attachment style to his parent. Perhaps with the firstborn child, the mom was able to stay home and care for him, but on the second child she had to go back to work right away for financial reasons and was more stressed out and less able to connect. These two children, raised by the same parents, may have entirely different attachment styles. Children with insecure attachments need additional support before being separated from a parent.

It’s easy to know which kids need more support because they’ll communicate it. This might be a child who feels anxious and asks a lot of questions about where the parents are going. It might be a child who screams and cries when a parent leaves the house. Or it might be a child who gets clingy and doesn’t let a parent walk away. Any of these children are displaying signs of needing extra attention.

So what does that look like? The biggest thing that parents can do to support children before a separation is to openly communicate about it. As adults, we sometimes take for granted that we have plans and know the details of when we’ll leave and return, and assume children will just be okay with it. But a child who needs extra support should be looped in early and often. This can be as simple as saying, “On Thursday, Mommy will not be picking you up from school. Miss Sheila will pick you up and bring you back to our house, and she will make you dinner. But Mommy will be home in time to tuck you into bed.” Then every day leading up to the separation, a parent can say, “Don’t forget on Thursday – that’s in three days – Miss Sheila will be picking you up at school and Mommy will be home in time to tuck you into bed.” Some parents may even wish to have the date marked on a calendar and then do daily check-ins.

Children depend on their parents for survival. Parents don’t often look at parenting this way, but children do. They think, “Who will take care of me if my mom is gone?” If there’s any trauma history impacting the child’s young brain, then seemingly small experiences, like a parent leaving for an hour, can trigger the amygdala – the reactionary part of the brain. When the amygdala reacts, a child isn’t able to think logically and reassure himself that the absence is just for an hour. He’s more likely to start panicking about what will happen next and who will care for him.

We want to share a few tips that can help parents know how to handle an upcoming separation. Just a note – these same strategies can be applied to anyone who works with kids with an insecure attachment, such as a teacher who will be absent from school, or a therapist who will be rescheduling the next session.

Prepare.

As we mentioned before, the most important thing a parent can do is prepare a child for upcoming separation. Parents can acknowledge the change in the routine by saying something like, “I know we normally go to Grandma’s house after church, but this Sunday, we are going to go to Isaac’s birthday party. Next week, we’ll go to Grandma’s house again.” Parents can empower children by giving them information about what’s going on. It helps a child organize and make sense of the world when he has the tools he needs to emotionally prepare for a change.

Don’t sneak out.

If a child is inclined to have a meltdown when a parent leaves him with a babysitter, it can be very tempting to start a movie and then quietly sneak out of the house before he notices. But for a child with an insecure attachment, this strategy is dangerous. Of course the child will eventually notice that the parent is gone, and then in addition to the sadness and anxiety of the parent leaving, he also has an added layer of distrust. Now he’s not sure if he can trust that his parent is being truthful about other things, such as what time she’ll return home.

Acknowledge a child’s feelings.

Even if a parent believes a child’s reaction to be unreasonable, she can acknowledge his feelings around the separation. She can say, “It sounds like you are sad that Mommy has to go away for a few days. I understand. Let’s think of something we can do when you feel sad to help you remember that Mommy is coming back.” A parent and child can together find appropriate coping strategies, such as a pacifier, putting a picture next to his bed, sleeping in his mom’s t-shirt. But…

Don’t create second-hand anxiety.

Some parents have an abundance of anxiety when separating from their children and ultimately pass that anxiety on to their children. It is healthy and good to react to a child’s emotions, but something else to create them. A parent should avoid phrases that put emotions into a child’s head, such as, “If you feel anxious, you can call me any time!” or, “You might get anxious or sad while I’m gone.”

Always keep promises.

If a parent makes a promise, such as, “We can FaceTime at 3:00 on Friday”, then the parent needs to be available right at 3:00 for a FaceTime call.

Remind them of previous successes.

Parents can take the opportunity to remind children of previous examples of times that they’ve been separated and reunited. Something as simple as, “Remember last time I went away overnight and you stayed with Grandma? Do you remember how you were sad when I left, but then I came back? Do you remember when we talked on the phone?” can be reassuring to a child who is not able to think all the way through the situation to the happy reunion at the end.

Don’t tell lies.

Parents who don’t know when they’ll return should be honest about that. A parent should not make up a date if she’s not sure, because that day could come and go and cause more anxiety for a child. Rather, if a parent isn’t sure, she can say, “I wish I could tell you what day I’ll be back but I really don’t know yet. As soon as I know, I’ll tell you.”

Don’t threaten.

Parents should never use separation as a threat. If a child is misbehaving due to anxiety around the separation, that is when he needs more attention and support, not less. A parent should never say, “If you don’t stop crying, then I won’t come back.” Parents should never connect the separation to a child’s behavior and make it seem as though the parent is leaving because of the child.

Always, always repair.

After a separation, parents have the opportunity to repair any damage that has been done to the relationship by talking about the separation and ultimate return. Parents can talk about how the experience was for the child, and then remind the child that they’ve been reunited as promised. Then this becomes a success story that parents can use in the future. As children grow older, they’ll face longer and longer separations, with the ultimate goal of autonomy. 

It is the parent’s job to help regulate a child. Some children will do this just fine on their own with minimal help from adults. But others who have less secure attachments with their caregivers and parents may need extra support. It’s not always fun to sit with a child who needs this extra support, but it’s crucial. Parents have to accommodate discomfort and tears in order to help the child develop and grow and become autonomous in the future.