Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: When Separated Children are Reunited with Parents: Understanding and Easing Reactions

There are few parents who have been separated from their children who don’t visualize and anticipate scenes of joyous reunion. While that may be possible in some cases, the ages and circumstances of children when separated from their parents make their reunions more complicated- be that separation from illness, immigration restrictions, divorce, war or natural disaster.

In the case of over 2,000 migrant children separated as a result of the zero tolerance policy, there are still 275 in government custody. Many of the parents have been deported back to their countries and many of these children have been in custody for at least 5 months. How will they handle reunion if it becomes possible. How does any child who has faced a traumatic separation reconnect with a parent?  

Understanding the Children

It is important to recognize that from a psychological perspective, even very young children have survival responses.

  • If adaption to separation has meant moving from a dysregulated state to some connection to a new setting with new caregivers to offset unspeakable loss- then reuniting may be experienced as another loss or abandonment.
  • Becoming initially upset, ignoring or distancing from the reuniting parent makes sense in terms of some young children’s psychic survival.
  • Of most importance is the recognition that children may need time to readjust and reconnect. This may be more pronounced in 2 to 5 year olds who do not have the language or context for making meaning of the rupture and separation from their parents.
  • Some children may seem withdrawn and numb. They too have been trying to survive. In addition to the normal stress reactions of fight and flight, freeze or numbing is the attempt to withdraw energy in face of untenable danger. Expert Alan Shore, author of Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self tells us that even for an infant, dissociation becomes the escape when there is no escape. As such, the withdrawn child will need time, understanding and the patient availability of the parent.

While school age and older children will often eagerly embrace their returning parent, they may manifest the traumatic separation in terms of moods, fears, behavior problems, irritability and aggressiveness.

  • As discussed by Sue Badeau, author of Bridges of Hope and mother of 22 children adopted from the judicial system and foster placements, it is always important to change the question from “ What is wrong with this child?” to “ What has happened to this child?”
  • The misbehavior observed in the aftermath of traumatic events reflects an inability to regulate anxiety. For both the separated parents and children, days have passed without the presence of each other. For a child, the parent is the stress regulator. In the absence of that lifeline, the children have coped but their regulation has been disrupted.
  • In the face of misbehavior, a child needs a “ Time In” not a “ Time Out.” The goal is to bring the child in closer to the parent or loving caregiver to help him/her regulate. Whether folding clothes, sitting together to sing or hear a story, or taking a walk holding hands, the goal is regulation and the message is “ You are ok – I am with you.” It is the restoration of proximity to the parent or loving family member that reduces the dysregulated behavior and fosters calm and connection.
  • Children of every age as well as their parents are likely to manifest the traumatic separation in terms of disruption of the bodily rhythms of sleeping, eating and the ability to play and relax. In small steps parents and children need to re-establish rituals for sleeping and eating as well as for playing, drawing, singing, laughing, praying, etc.

Supporting the Parents

Regardless of the child’s reaction, parents need help not blaming themselves or their children. Much as the parent bond is the “ Ordinary Magic” that fuels a child’s growth and resilience, its rupture creates reactions. When reuniting, the focus is on the repair of that bond by the parent or a loving parent substitute.

  • Parents need support in understanding their children’s reactions. They need support and reassurance that their child is coping with emotionally charged situations in the only way they can.
  • It takes time to re-establish safety.
  • The parent who remains calm and loving – a compassionate presence, will create safety.
  • Panic, fear, insistence or despair on the part of the parent jeopardizes that safety. If a child sees panic or anger in the face of the parent – they are still alone.
  • The parent is the child’s first love and lifeline.
  • Parents need to be patient and available.

What Can the Parents Do to Facilitate Emotional Re-Connection?

Traumatic events are registered in the senses – what is seen, felt, heard, smelled and tasted. So too are the bonds of safely between parent and child. The senses are the pathways to connection. Here are some things parents or family members can do:

  • The compassionate presence of a parent smiling at his/her child is restorative even if the child is cautious. The important steps are attunement and a positive expectation. Holding, sitting with, gently soothing a hand or even being in the room while watching the child play rebuilds connection.
  • Familiarity fosters connection. A parent who starts singing the song she/he always sang when comforting, playing or putting their child to sleep is turning up the memories and connections.
  • Being able to relax and reset calm through deep breathing, meditating, mindfulness etc. puts a parent in an available position to connect. Just as anxiety is contagious – so is calm.
  • Blowing bubbles is equivalent to deep breathing in an adult. Sitting with a child and blowing bubbles might be valuable for all- even if at first the parent is the only one blowing.
  • If the child has a special love for dolls, stuffed animals, puppets, trucks, the parent might begin hugging, speaking to, or playing with the object in a way that captures the child’s attention. He/she might offer it to the child. It may rekindle unspoken feelings.
  • Play with water, sand, play-dough, crayons, paints, blocks can offer stress reducing and creative outlets for emotional expression. Children will often play out what they have experienced before they can verbalize it.
  • The parent might prepare or obtain food that the child knows and loves. Remembering the aroma of foods brings connection.
  • The parent might have a blanket or special piece of clothing or a piece of their own clothing the child might remember and want to touch or have.
  • Siblings are very important. Children feel safe with other children and it is a reconnection to the parents they share.
  • There is something to the saying that “ Laughter is the Best Medicine.” Not only does laughter foster breathing that lowers stress it changes us physically and psychologically. Even in the most difficult of situations finding the reasons to laugh with children is priceless.

Making Meaning

One of the most important things a family can do in the aftermath of a traumatic event is to find a way over the days, months and even years “to speak about what happened” – to share the family narrative.

The need to forget, to silence self or others, and avoid sharing for what seemed unspeakable, locks a family into trauma and perpetuates a legacy of pain. But…

Sharing and making meaning of what has happened or is happening is a process that unfolds in different ways and times for different family members.

For the little ones, it will take time to understand the story of what happened. While school age children may need to tell their story, draw their story etc., and hear their parents’ stories. Little ones may need to slowly reconnect before they play out, draw, or have the words for what happened.

Teens too seem to need to take their time before they want to share their experiences. Often their sensitivity to shame and blame or fear of looking different keeps their story hidden.

For teens as well as school age children and adults, it is helpful and easier for individuals as well as families to share their story in groups with others who have faced similar hardship or traumatic loss.

Reuniting with children after traumatic separation is a difficult but rewarding process for parents.

The more support, resources and compassion parents are shown, the easier it will be for them to heal with their child through their loving connection.