Susan J. Spieker is the Director of the Center on Infant Mental Health and Development at the University of Washington.
Parents leave their children for extended periods of time for many
reasons. Wartime deployment away from families is a fact of military
life for service men and women. Likewise, work demands may require a
parent to leave on a lengthy trip. Many of these families are headed by
single parents or couples who are both deployed or must travel. These
parents, the infants and young children they leave behind, and the
substitute caregivers who provide interim care for the children must
all cope with multiple issues related to attachment and separation.
Although each family situation is unique, there are ways to think about
the complex emotions and behaviors involved that can help parents and
children reconnect and return to family life more quickly.
Single parents and families in which both parents are deployed or must
travel for an extended period have the difficult task of identifying
interim caregivers for their children. They should know that even very
young infants, as well as toddlers, are stressed by separations and
transitions to new caregivers. Ideally, interim caregivers will already
have a relationship with the child. They should be encouraged to enable
the infant or toddler to develop a strong, focused attachment to them
and not worry that by "getting too close" they will be compromising the
child's connection with the parent. In fact, just the opposite is the
case. Research has shown that separated infants and toddlers who have a
strong attachment with a sensitive interim caregiver do better
following reunion than infants who had multiple caregivers who provided
very appropriate physical care but did not allow a focused attachment
Infants develop and thrive in the context of close, nurturing
relationships, and serial or simultaneous nurturing relationships
increase the likelihood that they will be resilient to separation from
parents. Interim caregivers need to understand that infants and
toddlers can show signs of grief for days and weeks after the
separation. Anger, protest, searching and calling for the missing
parent are to be expected, but will eventually fade as the child
increasingly gets emotional needs met by the new caregiver. It is
important to remember, however, that the young child may still be
fearful of new separations and develop behaviors (clinging, crying,
sleep disturbances, refusal to go to day care or behaviors such as
hoarding at day care) that can signal continuing distress. It may be
possible to help the child keep the parent in mind by using pictures,
audio and videotape, or even live video conferencing, but we don't know
enough about how very young children respond to these activities. Some
may turn away from these activities because they are too stressful.
Interim caregivers need to follow the child's cues and provide lots of
physical comfort while attempting these strategies.
Similarly, when toddlers and young children are reconnected with a parent
after separation, they may seem not to remember the returning parent.
Instead, they may actively turn away, cry, and cling to the interim
caregiver. It is important that the returning parent not push the child
for hugs and kisses, instead following the child's cues and, with the
support of the interim caregiver, gently re-establishing the
relationship with their child. The parent should allow the interim
caregiver to remain the primary attachment figure for a time. As the
parent gradually resumes their role, it is ideal if the interim
caregiver remains in the picture.
Although at some point the toddler's attachment to the returning parent
will be re-established, it is typical for children to switch between
actively turning away from the returning parent and clinging
desperately to them. They may be unable to tolerate even brief,
everyday separations. They also may display anger, act out and develop
other challenging behaviors directed to either the returning parent or
the interim caregiver. It is important for everyone to understand that
these behaviors are the toddler's "language of distress." The actions
indicate that the child needs consistent comfort, reassurance, and the
attentive presence of both parent and caregiver. If the child's
distress becomes extreme and persistent, however, caregivers or parents
should seek help from a therapist with expertise in parent-infant
In all cases, it is important that the child's lead is followed, and
that parent and caregiver don't compete for the child's attention or
love. The most supportive thing the interim caregiver can do is
maintain a calm expectation that the child will regain a primary
attachment reconnection with the returning parent.
The Center on Infant Mental Health and Development (CIMHD) is one of ParentMap's
Giving Together partners. The mission of the CIMHD is to improve the
social and emotional aspects of development for young children during
their formative years. For more information, visit depts.washington.edu.
Originally published in the May, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.