Early Childhood Separation from Parents

Early Childhood Separation from Parents
General Guidelines for Emotional Well-being

Overnight Visits

The familiar home environment and primary parent/s naturally create a holding environment. Overnight visits, away from home and the primary caretaker, are not recommended until the child is about even years of age. If family life is emotionally stable, some six year olds can manage over night visits that they initiate and all adults involved know and feel comfortable with each other. In general, before age seven, it is considered disruptive to the child’s emotional continuity, to sleep away from home and the custodial parent/s. Custodial parents would naturally interact in familiar ways that are a part of the daily-established life routine. Emotional regression can often be the cost of such a disruption. Common resulting behaviors are such things as loss of toilet training, loss of any recently acquired skill, increased clinging, whining, and decrease in emotional energy to take on new challenges. If such a disruption is absolutely necessary, then familiar siblings, nighttime routines, transitional objects such as favorite blanket, pillow, stuffed animals etc. should be maintained (see Separation as a Growth Experience). Prior to this (up to age seven years) overnight visitations should ideally not be asked of the child. By age seven, the number of nights away from home can be gradually increased, a night at a time per occurrence. The child’s acceptance of this change should be monitored, as the nights are increased, to know what the limit is for that child.


Separation Sensitivity Prior to Age Two

There are peak times of sensitivity to separation within the first two years. At approximately eight months of age, the infant develops a new awareness and increased sensitivity to separations, and then again at about 18 months of age. At these key points, children are their least resilient to changes and to meeting new people. (To a young child a new person is someone they don’t see daily). These sensitive times to separation should be kept in mind even when introducing new relationships within the home environment with the primary caretaker present. For the infant, a window of opportunity exists around four or five months (after most children have settled into predictable feeding/sleeping times, and before the increased sensitivity at eight months). New introductions, such as starting a new child day care situation, should go more smoothly and be less disruptive for everyone during this time. Otherwise, an emotionally healthy baby at eight or eighteen months, when left by the primary caretaker, may spend the whole visit engaged in inconsolable crying. When the child this age is passive or “accepting” of the separation, there is cause for concern.

When Parents are Divorced

Prior to age two, daytime visits should occur within the child’s familiar environment, the home of the primary care taker. If divorced parent/s are unable to be around each other, the primary caretaker could leave the home for a while to allow space for the visit. If this is not manageable and the visiting parent needs to be away from the child’s primary home, then familiar objects: favorite blanket, teddy bear, etc. should be taken along with their usual car seat. A child is two years or younger has a very small world and familiar objects, smells and sounds help with transitions. A regular pattern or rhythm to visits away from home also helps provide security and support emotional dad drawingattachment to the caretakers. The custodial parent should be listened to for their report on the young child’s behavior upon returning home. Most custodial parents judgment can be a guideline. Most parents want their child to know their other parent and will be able to sense their child’s adjustment (e.g. whether they arrive home content and ready to rejoin with custodial parent.)

Children in the two to seven year age range can spend time away from home during the day with the non-custodial parent/s. At first, short excursions to the park, etc. if the child is very familiar and comfortable with the non-custodial parent/s. The judgment of the primary caretaker should be considered when deciding when the child is ready for extending the length of the day away from home. If the child is taken to the non-custodial parents home, that environment needs to be child safe and have a special place just for their toys, books etc., such as a drawer or cardboard box. Having their own possessions provided for them encourages appropriate play, can help the child feel welcome and provided for and tells them that their parent is thinking of their needs. This can help them anchor to their second home and can be maintained throughout their childhood visits.


Parent/s’ Only Trip Away from Home

Prior to age two, the primary parent/s should not be away overnight unless this is necessary. If this does occur, the child should be left with a familiar person; (brothers and sisters can help in continuing a familiar social environment) and as much as possible familiar routines should be played out in their usual manner. The young child should also be prepared for this separation (see separation program). Emotional reactions to separation in the younger than two-year-old, are lack of affect, i.e., not crying for the return of the parent/s, and eye aversion, i.e., not looking at the caretaker upon their return or going to them for a loving reunion, but instead, a general air of nonchalant indifference. These behaviors can easily be missed by the parent/s or be misread as the separation having no effect. As a result many parent/s are not signaled to “woo the child back” with loving attention. This lack of parent/s’ response inhibits the repair of the loving parent/s child bond.

Separation as a Growth Experience

The following are ideas to support a pre-school to young school-age child gaining strength from a few days separation from the primary parent/s. These ideas can be altered to fit your child’s needs.

In general, the goal is to give your child a sense that he/she can understand how long you’ll be gone, which helps solidify the feeling that you will return. The child gains a feeling of being able to act, not just wait passively; and that even if he or she gets angry at your leaving them, you will return at the right time. (The right time can be generally given e.g. “before you go to bed this night”, to allow for traffic problems etc. in parent/s’ returning home). The child needs to know that “no matter what” the parent/ will return. In other words, this is independent of what the child does or how the child feels.

In general, the goal is to encourage a sense of the parent/s’ existence even when they are out of sight. You can support this by saying where you’ll be, e.g., “I’ll be in a hotel room in bed at bed time and I’ll think of you” or “I’ll be in my sleeping bag when I go to sleep and I’ll think of you.” “You can think of me too when you’re in your bed at night.” Any way to make this more tangible, such as drawing pictures, can be helpful.

The child needs to know who will be watching over them while you’re gone; that you’ve talked to this person and told them all about family customs: “I told them about having your night light on and having your bear to sleep with. They know that first you take a bath, then you brush your teeth, then you go to bed and hear a story”.


Activities to Help the Child Understand and be Reassured

To help a young child count the days of parent/s absence, a ‘calendar’ can be created by drawing boxes to represent the number of days the parent/s will be gone. (The older child can use a regular calendar). Stickers or marks, etc. can be put on each day, at the end of the day, as a way to talk about and visually illustrate the number of days left. This represents, in the young child’s mind, their being able to “do something to make the parent come back”, and simultaneously is reassuring that the time of absence is definite and pre-planned.

Other parents have provided this same type of support by representing the number of days the parent will be gone with a number of favorite cookies placed over a photograph of the parent/s. Each day that the child eats a cookie he or she is increasingly uncovering this picture.

Small gifts can be unwrapped, one to be opened each night at bedtime: e.g., small books that can be taken to bed, a different color of washable marker each night that the child can use to draw a picture for thebees drawing parent/s to see upon return, etc.

If a camcorder is available, the parent/s can make a short video that the child can watch, if they want, while the parent/s are away. During this video the parent/s can talk about where they’ll be sleeping, e.g., “In a bed in the motel room and you’ll be in your bed with your teddy bear. (Mommy/daddy, etc.) will think about you in your bed and then go to sleep.”

The telephone can be very helpful from about age four years and older. Parent/s can call to say “good morning” or “good night”, and talk about where they both physically are right now. To the preschooler and older child, this can help them mentally visualize you even when they can’t see you. (To the younger child, this can be too confusing.) It can also help to tell the child that you are so far away you couldn’t come to them even if you walked all day long. This can help the younger child understand why you don’t just come to see them right now.


With an older child, you can write down the phone number of where you’ll be staying. Explain to the child that you might not be in your room when they call, but that the office, etc., can take a message for you to call them. You can role-play what the office might say and what they could say back.

A few papers can be stapled together for your child to make a book of activities and ideas, etc., he/she had while you were gone. When you return the two of you can look at it together. This strengthens the idea of each of you having fun while you’re apart, and having fun talking about your child’s adventures now that you’re back together. (Most children won’t be ready to hear much about your good time without them; it is hard for a young child to understand how you could love them and want to be away from them.)

When Children are Angry that You Went Away

It’s natural to be angry when you love being with someone and they have left for a while and you couldn’t be with them. Sometimes children don’t understand their anger at your having gone, and they can’t begin to know how to put it into words.

If your child ignores you when you come back, you could say something like, “Sometimes children get angry when their (mom/dad etc.) go away. That’s a usual thing for children”. If the child starts talking, listen. If the child is still unable to put feelings into words, you can offer something like, “Even when children are mad, (mommies/daddies, etc.) still will always come back to them.”

Ages Most Sensitive to Separations

The ages of 8 months, around 18 months and 8 years are thought to be particularly sensitive times for separation issues in young children. If it is possible, changes in caregivers and other forms of separation would best occur at other times.