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PROTECTING A CHILD’S EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT WHEN PARENTS SEPARATE OR
by Peter Ernest Haiman, Ph.D.
The child’s development of an emotional attachment to a primary caregiver
in the first six years of life is very important. A disturbance in this development
can create problems in childhood, adolescence, and adult life. Behaviors fundamental
to personal and interpersonal well-being are involved. Examples of these are
(a) the ability to create deep and enduring love relationships, (b) the strength
to tolerate the imperfect satisfaction of personal needs, (c) the attitudes
and desire that lead to cooperation with others, and (d) the motivation to
learn and work. The course of these processes is set in the early years of
life by the quality of the attachment bond that is established then.
and separation are a reality that profoundly affects the lives of each family
member. A variety of deep emotional wounds are created before, during, and
after a divorce or separation. Many savage, costly battles begin when a marriage
breaks up. Probably none is more destructive to all concerned than the fight
for custody and/or visitation rights. Father and mother often lock horns in
a bitter struggle to determine the conditions under which they can spend time
with their children. Attorneys and judges enter the arena to offer their partisan
advice and pronounce their judgments. Decisions that favor either the father
or the mother are considered; sometimes a compromise is reached between their
The Child’s Point of View
The goal of decision making, however, should not be to favor either the mother
or the father. Good decisions honor the child’s developmental needs
and respect the child’s point of view. Wise decisions will develop and
maintain the child’s loving relationship with both parents. Frequently
parents are unable to look beyond their own individual interests. Nevertheless,
if severe problems are to be minimized, adults must give the well-being of
their child importance and consideration.
The child from birth to six is by
nature vulnerable. During divorce and separation, the child’s emotional
well-being is at considerable risk. There are important issues that should
First, it is important to ensure the child
has continuous and ready access to the parent with whom the child has developed
an emotional attachment. That parent is usually the mother. Studies by Ainsworth
and Bell (1970), Yarrow (1963), David and Appell (1969), Isabella and Belsky
(1991), and others point out patterns of behavior that build a child’s
secure attachment to a primary caregiver. These are (a) loving physical contact
between the adult and child, (b) the caregiver’s
regular ability to soothe the child by holding, (c) the caregiver’s sensitivity
to the child’s signals and the ability to time interventions in harmony
with the child’s rhythms, (d) the mutual delight the adult and child have
by being in each other’s company, and (e) the creation of an environment
that permits the child to derive a sense of the consequences of his or her own
When parents provide these elements to the young child, they create a
foundation for an emotionally healthy life. In addition, they build into the
personality a resilience that in future years will enable the individual to cope
with life’s problems and challenges successfully.
No one has contributed
more to our understanding of attachment, separation, and loss in young children
than has the British psychiatrist John Bowlby. In his writings he encourages
mothers to give their young children as much attention and recognition as
they need. His studies and the research of others come to similar conclusions.
The origins of child, adolescent, and adult problems regarding attachment
to and love for another person often rest in too little responsive mothering
or in mothering provided by a constantly changing variety of people (Bowlby
The Question of Weaning
A second issue of importance during separation and divorce is whether or not
to wean a child from the mother’s breast. Weaning has become controversial
in the United States. Over the last century, the time considered proper for
weaning has shortened to as little as three months. Public opinion has consistently
overlooked the child’s needs. Child-led weaning is commonly practiced
throughout the world. Children should wean themselves. They do so, on average,
at 4.2 years of age. In her book Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical
Profession, Lawrence (1989) notes that comfort or nonnutritive sucking
is important to young children well beyond the toddler years.
In an article from La Leche League International’s Breastfeeding Rights
, Cerutti (1986) discusses the importance of breastfeeding to a child’s
“I want to address the issue of late weaning in the USA. This is one
of the few countries in the world where breastfeeding is not considered fashionable
after six to twelve months of age. This is an erroneous and completely unnatural
belief that originated in unfounded psychological principles of 1920.
who nurses for two or three years is often more secure and less anxious.
The ‘problem’ of
the late weaner does not rest in the mother and baby’s relationship
but in our own distorted perception of the relationship of mother and child.
Anything we do to interfere with that relationship in the first four years
of life will be detrimental for his psychological upbringing.”
In his book Creative Parenting, Sears (1987) also writes,
“If your goal is to establish a comfortable maternal-infant bond, both
nutritionally and emotionally then infant-led weaning is the course to follow.
Weaning may then occur any time between the ages of one and four years.”
When Courts Become Involved
The issue of weaning has entered the courts. If the child is to spend extended
time alone with the father, weaning is considered necessary. Lawrence (1989)
reviews several typical court cases.
“Three separate cases in the United
States have come to the author’s
attention where the father has sought custody on the basis of prolonged breastfeeding
where the child nursed for comfort to about the age four. In two cases, the judge
found in favor of the mother. In one case in Rochester, New York, the judge found
in favor of the father when an expert witness, a local psychologist, declared
that ‘you have to be crazy to nurse that long.’ It would seem appropriate
that judges review the entire case and qualifications of the respective parents
and refrain from basing their decision on personal biases and emotional testimony.”
cases of separation and divorce, parents must look beyond their own self-interests
and consider the well-being of their child. An excellent example of this is
for young children to be able to nurse when they so desire. To be held and
to nurse are behaviors that build the attachment bond in the early years of
life. Nutritive and non-nutritive nursing are both significant to the one-,
two-, three-, and four-year-old child. Courts should review the developmental
history of the child to determine his or her primary attachment figure. The
purpose of this careful consideration is to respect and protect the child’s bond with that parent.
This will ensure the child builds a positive and loving attachment to both the
mother and father.
Effects of Separation
Legal decisions can have a significant impact on the psychological well-being
of young children if they cause a separation of the child from the primary
attachment figure. Bowlby (1969, 1973), Ainsworth and Wittig (1969), and others
have conducted extensive research about the effects of separation on young
children. The results of these studies confirm that some children up to six
years of age may be harmed emotionally when they are separated from their
primary attachment parent. These children may become anxious and distressed
in response to even brief separations. Bowlby (1973) writes,
“There have been, and still are, clinicians and others interested in children
who have found it difficult to believe that accessibility or inaccessibility
of an attachment figure can of itself be a crucial variable in determining whether
a child (or an adult for that matter) is happy or distressed....These separations
occurring when the child is young play a weighty role in the origins of many
adult emotional problems.”
The issue of overnight visitation to adults other than their primary attachment
figure is of great importance to young children. Such undertakings can harm
the security of the attachment itself. Going to sleep at night is a transition
charged with particular vulnerability and sensitivity for all young children.
Wolf and Lozoff (1989) conducted research about how children make the transition
from a waking to a sleeping state. Specifically, they studied the relationship
between the primary caregiver’s presence when a young child goes to
sleep at night and that child’s use of an attachment object (special
toy, blanket) and thumb sucking. The authors found that children were more
likely to use an attachment object when no caregiver was present during the
passage to sleep. In addition, studies done in other cultures about the effects
on children of nighttime child-rearing practices have shown that attachment
object use was less common when children slept in the same bed or in the same
room as their mothers and were breastfed longer (Gaddini & Gaddini, 1970;
Hong & Townes, 1976; Litt, 1981).
A young child’s love for his or
her father and the father’s love
for his child are not at issue here. What is critical to understand is that a
child’s bond with the maternal attachment figure is a significantly different
kind of relationship from even a close love relationship with another, including
The overriding power of the child’s emotional attachment to the primary
attachment figure is irrational to the uninformed adult. If young children are
required to spend time away from this person during the day or at night, they
frequently will develop separation anxiety and sleep disturbances. These children
have difficulty falling asleep or they wake up frequently throughout the night.
For the young child, sleep is like a separation, and sleep disturbances are often
linked with separation anxiety. As Cerutti (1986) and many others have noted,
children of three, four, and five years of age can become “completely terrified
if [their] mother is not around.” The normal psychological regression experienced
by all young children at night makes it extremely ill-advised to permit overnight
separations from the maternal attachment figure. Young children should spend
nighttimes with their primary attachment figure—their mothers.
Effects on the Child
Mediators, judges, and parents unfortunately often overlook the important
needs of the young child and require overnight visitations before they are
ready. What do young children feel when they are forced to spend nights away
from their attachment figure? What feelings are created in young children
for the mother and father? What do children feel about themselves? Young children
may soon come to dislike and distrust the parent who forces them to spend
the night away from their primary attachment figure. Children may learn to
distrust and dislike the attachment parent for not protecting them from an
unwanted and painful experience. In addition, children may dislike and distrust
themselves. They may see themselves as the cause of the whole predicament,
including the separation and/or divorce.
Overnight visitations away from the
primary caregiver can undermine and harm the security of the attachment bond
itself. That bond is a young child’s
source of security and the foundation of the child’s emotional growth.
When a young child is required against his or her will to sleep overnight away
from his or her primary attachment person, long-lasting emotional and interpersonal
problems can result.
The behavior of a young child will show whether that child
is ready and willing to spend the night away from the primary attachment figure.
It is not in the interest of building the best relationship between the child
and the father or mother for judges, mediators, or parents to require a child
to do so before the child expresses an interest in spending the night away.
Furthermore, adults should make sure that after overnight visitations begin,
subsequent behavior shows no adverse effects.
When children experience the separation or
divorce of their parents, it is common for them to develop problems and lose
behavioral gains. Children who have demonstrated control over their bowel
and bladder often lose that control. Children who have weaned may need to
nurse once more. Verbal children may become quiet or begin to stutter. Well-behaved
children may show anger and aggression toward others and throw temper tantrums.
Children who could once keep themselves out of harm’s
way may now get physically injured more often. Emotionally resilient children
may become brittle. Children who used to think clearly and understand easily
may become confused and find it hard to communicate rationally. Once happy children
may become morose and depressed. Children who formerly expressed curiosity and
interest in their world may become withdrawn and passive. Young children who
were willful and defiant may become docile and obedient. This latter behavior
change can mistakenly be seen as good. In truth, it reflects great emotional
pain and threat. In the false belief that they caused the separation or divorce,
young children may repress the developmentally normal and appropriate drives
to become independent. They may abandon and punish their normal selves in the
desperate hope that, by doing so, the parents they need and love so much will
come together again. It is common for young children to manifest one or a combination
of these problems in various degrees of severity in response to the separation
and divorce of their parents.
It is important not to blame or punish children
for these behaviors. Young children react in these ways when the stability
and security of their life is violated. To prevent and/or minimize these responses,
parents and other family members should create as stable and predictable an
interpersonal environment for the child as possible. That environment should
focus on strengthening the attachment between the child and the primary caregiver.
A loving relationship with the other parent also should be maintained.
Normal Dependency Period
Of all primates, human beings have the longest period of normal developmental
dependency. The child-rearing practices of both intact families and families
suffering from separation and divorce often overlook this fact. The profoundly
important needs of the young child are too frequently ignored or inadequately
met. Decisions that have a significant impact on the life of the young child
are regularly made by parents and other adults who are not properly informed
to make those decisions. When judges, mediators, and parents make decisions
that give paramount consideration to the welfare of the vulnerable young child,
they can limit the damage caused by divorce and separation. The effects of
these decisions last a lifetime.
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This article was published in New Beginnings, a publication of La
Leche League International, 1994.