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Scotts Valley Counseling Center


How Separation Impacts Children Developmentally

By Sheryl A. Isaacs, MS
The affects of separation are numerous. Each person within the family unit will suffer the loss of separation and grieve differently. Regardless of whether or not you are married or living together, the effects are the same. This can be complicated by many things. Families that have half-siblings, step siblings or children that have built relationships with the parent figures' family face unique challenges. Separation is an ending of a life style that all have become used to.
Children experience the loss developmentally. How children exhibit this stress in their lives also depends on where they are developmentally. It is important to note that ALL children are affected. When you begin to look at the developmental tasks that are faced during different developmental time periods, it is easy to see why children would express stress in a way that is typical for that age group.
Below is a table that is compiled of ages, how stress is expressed and developmental tasks that a child is trying to negotiate that are related to the child’s expression of stress.
Age of Child How stress is communicated Developmental Tasks
Infant, 0-6 months Excessive crying, eating/sleeping problems Attachment
Emotional Development
Infant, 6 months – 2 years Irritability, anxiety, increased fears/worries, fear of separation, asking for absent parent Attachment
Emotional Development
Toddlers, 2-3 years Irritability, anxiety, increased fears/worries, fear of separation, asking for absent parent Self-Control
Fantasy Play
Early School Age, 4 to 6 years Excessive fear/anxieties, regressive behavior, whining, crying, tantrums, neediness, self-blame, transition issues and resistance to going with parent Self-theory, membership in particular social groups Gender Identification-same sex parental identification Guilt is starting to be experienced at this stage
Elementary, 6 to 12 years School performance issues, strong reaction/empathy for parent’s pain, depression, withdrawal, isolation, acting out, aggression with other children, looks for “whose fault” the separation was Self-evaluation-look to others to evaluate their performance Friendship-Parental modeling in separation can teach children mal-adaptive patterns in relating to friends Industry vs. inferiority –Seek to gain competence
Specifically Pre-adolescent, 10 to 12 years School performance issues, anxiety, loyalty issues with parents, loss of stability/security, increased stress when parents argue, somatic complaints, loss of concentration, guilt “what did I do” Formal Operations-beginning to understand onsequences of actions, self-reflective, detect inconsistency and consistency in statements
Teens, 13 to 18 years Anger at parents, loyalty conflict are extreme, school problems, drug/alcohol abuse, depression/suicidality, sexual behavior, breaking the rules/going against authority figures, guilt “what did I do”/ “what could I have done” Formal Operations- understand consequences of actions, self-reflective, detect inconsistency and consistency in statements
Peers-disruption to teens life
You can see that for the infant the main tasks are that of forming attachments and emotional development. When separation occurs within this developmental stage the child is unable to experience continuity in attachment with both parents. This will increase crying, eating and sleeping problems. This can lead to an increase in stress for the parents. That can result in further loss of the ability to attune and attach to their child. The child is working out the crisis of trust vs. mistrust. When children are unable to negotiate this crisis, they form mistrust for their world and those in it.
Toddlers engage in increased fantasy play at their developmental stage. It stands to reason that a child that experiences separation of parents would naturally become fearful about the separation and ask for the absent parent. The toddler may be experiencing fantasies that he is unable to convey to parents due to an inability to cognitively share his thoughts and feelings. The toddlers are seeking to negotiate the crisis of autonomy vs. shame and doubt. The toddler that is unable to negotiate this crisis experiences shame of his behavior and doubt in his abilities. The toddlers that do not negotiate this stage successfully will have issues initiating and could be inhibited.
As children enter into the preschool years they begin to work on gender identification and self-theory. Children tend to identify stronger with the same-sex parent. If the opposite parent engages in negative talk about the same-sex parent, it may cause the child to identify that he is “bad” or “wrong.” During this developmental period children are beginning to identify who they are and where they belong. The first community that is experienced is the family unit. This gives the child his or her first sense of self and belonging. Preschoolers are seeking to negotiate the crisis of initiative vs. guilt. At this developmental stage children can experience regressive behavior, whining and transition issues. It is at this stage that children begin to experience guilt, which may make it difficult to go with the other parent.
During the school age years (i.e., early elementary years and pre-adolescent years) children are learning to build friendships and begin self-evaluation of who they are. The crisis that early elementary children are seeking to weather is competence vs. inferiority. Parental interactions that are negative can harm how children relate to peers at this stage. Children are looking to parents to see how to behave as friends. Children at this stage will exhibit school performance issues which can cause low self evaluation as they compare themselves to peers and their performance. When this crisis is not negotiated successfully children will develop a sense of inferiority. It is during this age range that kids seek to know “whose fault” it is and wonder “what did I do.”
During the teen years children are beginning to really understand the consequences of actions, are self-reflective and detect inconsistency in statements. Teens are very egocentric. Peers are an important part of this developmental stage as the teen finds out “where do I fit in.” They are seeking to negotiate the crisis of identity vs. role confusion. Separation at this stage is seen as a disruption to their life. Loyalty conflicts are expressed in an extreme manner. Having the ability to think through problems causes the teen to think deeply about the changes that will occur as a consequence of the separation. Children at this stage experience anger, school problems, drug and alcohol abuse, depression/suicidality and act out against authority figures.
Due to the fact that children are affected in various ways at different developmental states it is important to be able to co-parent in an effective manner. When parents can co-parent together, in a positive manner, children will be able to adjust to the separation without experiencing undue stress. It is important to remember that all children engage in “magical thinking” and will tend to blame themselves for the separation. Communication is extremely important. Children need to feel that they can discuss their fears, concerns, wishes and desires without the other parent becoming angry or talking ill of the parent that is not there.
It will not be easy at times. As parents you will need to put aside your hurts and emotions and focus on the issues regarding your child. In the beginning it may help to utilize a communication log to report important information to the other parent or email. You can also request a good time to discuss issues when the children are not around. If it is difficult to be around the other parent in the beginning, minimize contact. Do not allow your conversations to discuss anything other than important issues regarding your child.
Use basic communication skills when talking to the other parent. Listen and clarify what the other parent is saying. Do not be vague about pick-ups or drop-offs. Make an effort to stick to a routine schedule. If the schedule needs to change give ample time for the other parent to adjust their schedule. Keep the other parent informed about school events and activities. Your child will do best with both parents involved in his academic endeavors. Discuss doctor appointments and health issues. For your child to thrive you will both need to be on the same page. Discuss rules that can be reinforced at each home to make transition between houses easier. Never send messages to the other parent through your child. Communicate directly yourself. Remember, that it is not about you but your child.
The most important thing to remember is that you cannot control the other parent. You can only control what you do. You will not parent the same way and that is okay. If you have an issue that you are concerned about, talk to the other parent without the child present. Children do not need the added burden of being caught in the middle. Do not interfere with the other parent and their parenting, unless there is a concern for the child’s well-being. If there is an issue of safety for your child document it and report it. Physical and emotional abuse, neglect and domestic violence in the home are never appropriate and cause lasting harm to children. The most important job that we have as parents is to protect our children and keep them safe.
If you are having a difficult time with the transition, seek out someone to talk to. It is important to talk to someone that can listen objectively and put the needs of your child first, such as a therapist. Therapy can give you a safe place to work on the strong emotions that you may be experiencing away from your child. Therapy can also increase your ability to set boundaries and communicate in a clear manner with the other parent. In time as you work through your emotions it will be easier to co-parent in a healthy manner.