How Long Can a Child Be Safely Separated from Parents?

Shorter than you think…

In the mid-20th century, we learned some shocking and invaluable lessons about how to raise healthy humans: Don’t separate young children from a primary caregiver. Warmth, food, medicine, toys, and other material comforts are not enough.

This point was not lost on British psychologist, John Bowlby (1907 – 1990) who changed the face of child care nearly single handedly (with the aid of colleagues, James and Joyce Robertson).

Bowlby is the author of one of the grand theories of psychology, attachment theory. Attachment theory is an explanatory framework that brilliantly describes and explains the course of “the enduring affectional bond” between parent and child. Infants are born with reflexes that draw the attention of caregivers (grasping, smiling, crying) that in a short time develop into more intentional behaviors (social smiling, crying, babbling, calling out, following) designed to prompt love and support from the parent. If that care is not forthcoming, the child retreats and avoids the caregiver (and seeks life-supporting attention elsewhere). The first lessons an infant learns about others and the value of the self are through these interactions. When things go well, the child learns others are trustworthy and the self is lovable. When things go especially poorly, the child is fundamentally distrustful of others and has learned that she is not worthy of love and attention. In the extreme, Bowlby referred to these as “affectionless characters”. These first relationships are essential for emotional, social, and personality development.

So, about separating a young child from his or her caregiver, how long is ok?

That’s where the Robertsons come in. In an effort to make Bowlby’s work accessible to people in the care industry, they made a series of short films from the 50s and 60s tracking children in “brief separations” from their parents. At that time, it was not unusual to foster a child out to qualified adults while, for example, a sibling was being born. This is exactly what happened to 17-month-old “John”, and no one thought twice about it before the Robertson’s documentary. He was put in a care center with other children and friendly attentive adults (a “tender age shelter”, if you will). He had good food, plenty of toys, and playmates. It was just like “summer camp”.

Yet, the film clearly shows John moving through the exact stages of grief outlined at length by Bowlby in his 3 volumes, Attachment and Loss.

Protest. First, we see John crying after his parents as they assure him that he will be ok. He is inconsolable. We have heard these heartbreaking wails from audio leaked by journalists in the last 24 hours.

Despair. After a day or two, John quiets. But he won’t play, take food, or engage with his new caregivers. John looks depressed, listless, and ill. He receives visits from his father with no joyous reunion.

At last, John starts to brighten as he starts interacting with toys and his new caregivers. He looks like he has come out of his depression, and triumphed over his separation!

Warning: This is no triumph. This perking up is the onset of what Bowlby called detachment, the 3rd stage of a child’s grief. Here the child appears to be recovering and accepting tenderness from the substitute caregivers, but the child may show indifference or anger toward the caregiver that “abandoned them”. This is how humans cope with grief and loss in the first years, according to Bowlby. If this process is not righted and trust regained, the relationship may be irreversibly damaged, and the child set on a course of mistrust with other people.

In extreme cases of prolonged neglect, the child may withdraw from loving relationships with others altogether (i.e., “affectionless characters”).

In John, we clearly can observe protest give way to despair, and then what appears to be the onset of the detachment process. How long did this take? Weeks? Months? These are the typical responses of undergraduate students who hopefully assume that a mother’s love will conquer all.

9 days. It took 9 days. The name of the film is, John: Aged 17 Months, in a Residential Nursery for 9 Days.

These films changed the culture of child care. In fact, as modern parents know, God forbid your young child is taken ill, most hospitals allow – even encourage – a caregiver to stay with the child. Our modern standards are in large part due to Bowlby and the Robertsons.

It doesn’t matter how well provisioned young children are in “shelters”. We have long known not to separate young children from loving caregivers because you will deny them the exact forces THAT MAKE THEM HUMAN.

Accordingly, in the last days we have received critical messages of our recent policy of separating children from their parents at the border from the American Psychological Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, the Society for Research on Child Development, and others. More will surely follow.

By separating so many children from their parents we are literally changing the course of humanity.

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