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Any pediatric nurse knows that the most difficult challenge children face when entering the hospital is the trauma they experience when being separated from their parents. And, any nurse will tell you that even though their job is to comfort and care for a child, it is often an insurmountable task given the human drive for both a child and a parent to be together.

Children, who return home from the hospital, are found to be more clinging, exhibit more intense emotional responses, experience loss of sphincter control and increased fear of future separation from their parents. Additionally, they may be extremely angry with the parents for abandoning them.

Separation predisposes a child to serious psychological disturbances. Disorders of mental health can occur in such forms as anxiety disorders, major depression, with symptoms such as hopelessness, helplessness, intense fear and even physical illnesses. Separation anxiety can last throughout a lifetime. Moreover, children can experience rage, anger and overwhelming sadness. Tragically, the separation can take the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, which can have a terrifying effect on children which is akin to being kidnapped.

In the worst case scenario, an infant or child of a very tender age can regress emotinally to the point that they fail to thrive. This process has also been noted in the animal kingdom. When an owner dies, their pets will feel abandoned and mourn.

The theory of attachment is well documented. John Bowlby, a primary researcher on attachment, describes the experience of loss by behaviors of protest, (angry, loud, fearful behavior); despair (acute pain, misery and diminishing hope) and then detachment (when the child behaves as if he or she does not care). Individual characteristics such as a child's vulnerability, sensitivities and resilience all factor into how a child responds to separation.

Furthermore, the fear of a potential loss of a loved one can manifest as dysfunctional relationships where people fail to form lasting relationships. 

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A traumatic separation may be followed by future traumatic events in relationships. The nature of the mother/child relationship creates a basis for an individual's ability to achieve a sense of security and the development of basic trust, which is the foundation for all future relationships.

A toddler, placed in an orphanage, became so distressed at being separated from her mother she would climb out of her crib night and day in search of her mother. Chicken wire was placed over the crib to restrict the toddler from escaping. As this person grew up, she wondered why every relationship she entered into was with the understanding that it would end. Consequently, she never really invested in a relationship.

Very young children sometimes do not remember the separating event. However, they do carry a memory of the emotion they experienced when separated. In adult life, when people are separating, the person being left may respond with the same level of emotional intensity as they did when separated from their parent. This occurs even though they can't recall the childhood event.

Even nonhuman primates respond to maternal loss with protest and depression, as do humans. This speaks to the universal response that animals and humans experience at the loss of an attachment figure, especially a parent. 

Dr. Lynda M. Gantt, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Maria.

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