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Impacts of Separation for Children

A Childs Reactions to Separation at Different Ages

Age 0-2

Typical Characteristics

  • Infants are dependant on parents for meeting their needs

  • They develop a sense of trust through having a predictable and consistent caregiver

Separation Issues

  • Infants may feel the loss of contact with a primary caretaking parent

  • Loss of familiar and comfortable environment

  • Do not understand conflict, but may react to changes in the parent's energy level and mood.

How They Might Show Their Stress

  • Difficulty toileting or sleeping

  • Slowing down in learning new skills

  • Afraid to leave parent; clingy with a parent

  • General crankiness, temper tantrums, crying

  • More fretful or anxious

Suggestions for parents

  • Attempt to allow both parents to bond with an infant

  • Meet an infant's needs promptly and consistently

  • Try not to separate the infant from his or her primary caregiver for extended periods

  • 18 month to 2-year-old children can tolerate longer separations from their primary caregiver than infants, especially if an older sister or brother will be with them.

  • Prepare the child for the break by explaining what will happen

2-4 years

Typical Characteristics

  • Growth of a sense of independence

  • Can keep the absent parent in mind to comfort themselves for extended periods

  • Verbal skills develop for expression of feelings and needs

Separation Issues

  • May have a sense of responsibility for the separation

  • Are anxious about basic needs – food, shelter, visitation

  • Understands that a parent has moved, but doesn't understand why.

  • May fantasize about reuniting parents.

How They Might Show Their Stress

  • Regression – returning to security blankets, old toys, lapses in toilet training

  • Making up fantasy stories

  • Anxious at bedtime, sleeping fitfully, waking frequently

  • Fear of being abandoned by both parents

  • Emotionally needy, seeking physical contact

  • More irritable, aggressive, has temper tantrums

Suggestions for parents

  • Reassure your preschooler by telling them you love them and cuddling them

  • Allow some regression

  • Keep routines consistent

  • Explain what is going to happen to the child and role-play future events

  • The child will adapt to more extended separation from one parent through frequent visits and overnights with the other parent

  • Spend time alone with the child (cuddle, read)

  • Give child time with another responsive adult (grandparent, close friend)

5-8 years

Typical Characteristics

  • Are developing peer and community relationships

  • Moral development progresses

Separation Issues

  • See the separation as their problem

  • May cling to fantasies that their parents will reunite

  • Fear abandonment and will long for the absent parent regardless of the quality of the previous relationship

  • Realizes that one parent is not as active or available for them

How They Might Show Their Stress

  • General sadness, feeling abandoned and rejected

  • Crying and sobbing

  • Fantasizing about parents' reconciliation

  • Conflicts of loyalty; feels torn apart; problems with impulsive behaviour

  • May hold anger inside

  • May have more nightmares

  • May become aggressive and angry toward parent he/she lives with

Suggestions for parents

  • Try to have each parent spend as much time with the child as possible

  • Allow the child to express his feelings

  • Help the child understand that the decision to separate had nothing to do with him or her

  • Encourage the child to draw pictures about their feelings and explain the story and what it means to him/her.

  • Encourage your child to talk

  • Allow other parent/carers to maintain a regular presence in a child's life

9-12 years

Typical Characteristics

  • Children of this age are developing an increased awareness of self, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses compared to others. Pre-adolescents are working at fitting into the peer-level social order

Separation Issues

  • Although they see the separation as the parents' problem, they are often angry about the parents' inability to work the problems out

  • Likely to take sides, siding against the parent they think wanted the separation

How They Might Show Their Stress

  • Intense anger at parent blamed for causing the separation

  • Physical complaints like headaches and stomach aches

  • Become overactive to avoid thinking about the separation

  • Feel ashamed of what's happening in the family and different from other kids

  • Tries to recreate "what was"

Suggestions for parents

  • Parents need to try to remain involved and honest and to avoid blaming each other

  • Pre-adolescents can spend holidays with either parent

  • Children should be allowed to contact the other parent

  • Maintain a consistent routine

  • Inform the child of what is happening and what will occur

  • Keep teachers informed of any stress the child is feeling and get help for school problems

  • Permit children to continue loving both parents

13-18 years

Typical Characteristics

  • Teens are solidifying their identity and establishing a sense of self concerning the rules and regulations of society

  • Embarrassment about family

Separation Issues

  • Possible de-idealization of one or both parents

  • Will place peer needs ahead of family and therefore may not want to visit with the non-custodial parent

  • Understand but doesn't accept the separation

How They Might Show Their Stress

  • Withdraw from family life and spend more time with peers

  • Feel hurried to become independent

  • Engage in 'trying out' behaviour such as sexual acting out, drinking, or drug experimentation

  • Worry about their future loves and marriage

  • Chronic fatigue and difficulty concentrating

  • Can feel rejected by the parent who has left

  • Tries to cut one or both parents out of their life

  • May try to adopt a carer role for one or both parents

  • Feels that he/she will never have a long-term relationship

Suggestions for parents

  • Be consistent about discipline and limits while allowing for typical adolescent behaviour

  • Allow more freedom and choices

  • Please find time to be with the teen and be flexible with their schedules

  • Give teens input about the visitation schedule, but don't burden them with the responsibility of deciding on the visitation schedule

  • Remind child who "owns" the problem, and free them from guilt

  • Don't involve your child in parental struggles

  • Please don't use the child as a replacement partner (don't discuss adult problems with him/her

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