Understanding the Trauma Associated with Child-Parent Separation

Introduction

The relationship between a parent or primary caregiver and a child is crucial for developing the child’s sense of self, safety, and trust in the world. This relationship nurtures the child’s physical, emotional, and social development. However, in some situations, a child may experience separation from their parent or primary caregiver, either permanently due to the death of a parent or temporarily because of other circumstances. This separation can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress responses in the child.

Understanding Trauma

Impact of Post-Traumatic Stress on Children

Distrust and Fear: A child who experiences separation from their parents can develop distrust in their ability to meet their needs. They may constantly fear being separated again once reconnection occurs and have difficulty tolerating even brief separation episodes from their parents or primary caregivers.

Stress Response: Children need their parents to help buffer the impact of traumatic experiences. Without parents, children endure prolonged stress. When a developing brain is exposed to stress hormones, the brain may undergo several changes that can impact the child’s physical and psychological health.

Behavioural and Emotional Issues: After experiencing separation from parents, a child may develop emotional dysregulation that affects their behaviour. Children with emotional dysregulation display aggression, withdrawal, and regression. They are also at increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, and several other emotional and behavioural problems.

Supporting Children Through Separation

Separation from a primary caregiver or parent can be a traumatic experience. Children going through such separations may experience overwhelming emotions. As adults, it is essential to provide a safe space to help them process their feelings. At ACTG, experienced clinicians work with children and their carers to assist them in understanding their needs and processing their emotions in a safe space.

What Can You Do?

Make Space: Provide a safe and compassionate environment for the child to express their emotions. It is essential to be patient and understanding.

Hold Compassion: Working with vulnerable children and young people can be challenging, and no single rule fits all. It is essential to forgive yourself and know that you are trying your best. Accept and make space for your feelings. Seek support from a professional who can assist you with holding compassion for yourself and the child.

Be There: Children who have experienced separation from their parents or caregivers may express distrust and need time to develop trust. Please look for clues to build relationships with them and be present. Children need love, respect, and safety in their relationships, and they need an adult to help them recognise their core needs.

Make Time to Play: Connection with the child can help them heal. Playing with children is one of the most effective tools to build a strong relationship. Play adds joy to the relationship and provides an opportunity to reconnect with the child’s inner world.

Self-Care: Paying attention to your needs does not make you selfish. It means caring for your well-being, which is a significant value to teach children. Verbalise your feelings to your children at a level appropriate for their age. Communicate your needs and limitations as a parent/caregiver while holding realistic expectations for the child.

Conclusion

Understanding the trauma associated with child-parent separation is essential for providing the necessary support to children undergoing such experiences. By creating a safe and supportive environment, holding compassion, being present, making time to play, and practising self-care, caregivers and professionals can help children navigate their emotions and foster healing and resilience.