Reconnecting with children after a long absence
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 to develop.
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 psychotherapy.
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.