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: 1) the ability to create deep and enduring
love relationships; 2) the strength to tolerate the imperfect
satisfaction of personal needs; 3) the attitudes and desire to
cooperate with others; and 4) 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.
Divorce is 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. 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 be considered.
First, it is important to ensure that 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: 1) loving physical
contact between the adult and child; 2) the caregiver's regular
ability to soothe the child by holding; 3) the caregiver's
sensitivity to the child's signals and the ability to time
interventions in harmony with the child's rhythms; 4) the mutual
delight that the adult and child have by being in each other's
company; and 5) creating an environment that permits the child to
derive a sense of the consequences of his/her own actions.
When parents provide these elements to the
young child, they create a foundation for an emotionally healthy
life. In addition they build into the child's personality a
resilience that, in future years, will enable the individual
successfully to cope with life's problems and challenges.
No one has contributed more to our
understanding of attachment, separation, and loss in young
children than 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 mothering provided by a constantly changing variety
of people (Bowlby 1969).
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. In this 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 the average, at 4.2 years of age. In
her book, Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession, Ruth
A. Lawrence, M.D., 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 Packet", Edward R.
Cerutti, M.D., discusses the importance of breastfeeding to a
child's emotional development.
"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.
The child 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
In The Baby Book, William Sears,
M.D., writes: "In ancient writings, the word "wean"
meant "to ripen" --- like a fruit nourished to
readiness, it's time to leave the vine? Weaning was a joyous
occasion because a weaned child was valued as a fulfilled child; a
child was so filled with the basic tools of the earlier stages of
development that she graduated to take on the next stage of
development more independently."
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. Dr. Lawrence 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."
In 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/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 that the child builds a
positive and loving attachment to both the mother and father.
Effects of Separation
Legal decisions can have significant impact
on the psychological well-being of young children if they cause a
separation of the child from the primary attachment figure.
Bowlby, Ainsworth, and others have conducted extensive research on
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 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
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. Wolfe and Lozoff conducted research on 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
thumbsucking. The authors found that children were more likely to
use an attachment object when no caregiver was present during the
passage to sleep (Wolf and Lozoff, 1989). In addition, studies
done in other cultures of 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 and
Gaddini, 1970; Hong and Townes, 1976; Litt, 1981).
A young child's love for his 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 his attachment
figure mother is a significantly different kind of relationship
from even a close love relationship with another, including the
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 will frequently 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 Dr. Cerutti 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
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 will dislike and
distrust themselves. They will 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/her will to sleep overnight away from
his/her primary attachment person, it can cause long-lasting
emotional and interpersonal problems.
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 would not be in the
interest of building the best relationship between the child and
the father or mother if judges, mediators, or parents 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, the child's 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 of their bowel and bladder will often lose that control.
Children who have weaned may need to nurse once more. Verbal
children can become quiet or begin to stutter. Well-behaved
children can show anger and aggression towards others and throw
temper tantrums. Children who could once keep themselves out of
harm's way, now get physically injured more often. Emotionally
resilient children can 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 had formerly expressed curiosity and
interest in their world can become withdrawn and passive. Young
children who were willful and defiant can 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 repress the developmentally normal and appropriate drives
to become independent. They abandon and punish their normal selves
in the desperate hope that, by doing so, the parents that 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
should also 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 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.