The Consequences of Separation and Loss

Separation and loss are critical life events. Most adults can still recall their first broken heart and how rejected and devastated they felt. They were certain they could never love or be loved again. To some extent that first loss colors the initiation and course of future romantic relationships.

From infancy on, parents and caregivers are aware of the pain and damage that separation and loss can cause. Parents anticipate this and prepare for it in many ways. The universal game of Peek-a-Boo is a playful way of hiding the face, practicing temporary loss, and then reassuring the child by uncovering the face again. Tension is usually relieved with peals of laughter.

“Young children are upset by even brief separations. Older children are upset by longer ones. Adults are upset whenever a separation is prolonged or permanent, as in bereavement.” (Bowlby, 1973)

Bowlby later warns of the danger of disrupted family relationships which can result in “the emotionally detached individual who is incapable of maintaining a stable affectional bond with anyone. People with this disability may be labeled as psychopathic and/or hysterical. They are often delinquent and suicidal.” (1979)

Multiple placements lead some children to develop a “social indifference” while others express the loss in “affect hunger, wanting constant attention. These reactions frequently last a lifetime.” (Steinhauer, 1991) (Cahn, 1996)

In his 1994 book, “Becoming Attached,” Robert Karen states that subsequent research has confirmed Bowlby’s attachment theory and inspired a revolution in child psychiatry. “Bowlby’s broad point about the danger of early depriving separations, not only in terms of the suffering it causes but in its disturbing impact on character formation, had been made in a powerful way.”

Brian, an 11-year-old foster child said it well: “You have to keep moving, and moving, and moving, until finally someone keeps you. That kind of sucks.” (Whiting and Lee, 2003)

Children who experienced many placements showed an increase in misbehavior. Even children who began without problem behavior developed problems following multiple placements. Newton et al in 2000 suggest that everything possible should be done to keep placements to an absolute minimum.