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Parent-child separation can be devastating for family


QUESTION: Everyone knows that divorce is tough on children. What about parent-child separation that occurs for reasons other than divorce? Is the pain any less intense for kids when a parent has a good reason to be away?

DR. DOBSON: Research confirms that the consequences of any parent-child separation can be severe. In one study of fathers whose jobs required them to be away from their families for long periods of time, the children tended to experience numerous negative reactions, including anger, rejection, depression, low self-esteem, and commonly, a decline in school performance. Those findings have been confirmed in other contexts, as well.

Some of those conclusions were presented at a White House conference at which I spoke a few years ago. The other speaker was Dr. Armand Nicholi, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. That day, Dr. Nicholi explained how family circumstances that make parents inaccessible to their children produce some of the same effects as divorce itself.

Cross-cultural studies make it clear that parents in the United States spend less time with their children than parents in almost any other nation in the world. For decades, millions of fathers have devoted themselves exclusively to their occupations and activities away from home. More recently, mothers have joined the workforce in huge numbers, rendering themselves exhausted at night and burdened with domestic duties on weekends.

The result: No one is at home to meet the needs of millions of lonely preschoolers and latchkey children. Dr. Nicholi expressed regret that his comments would make many parents feel uncomfortable and guilty. However, he felt obligated to report the facts as he saw them.

Most important (and the point of his address), Dr. Nicholi stressed the undeniable link between the interruption of parent-child relationships and the escalation of psychiatric problems that we were then seeing and that are even more pronounced today. If the numbers of dysfunctional families and absentee parents continued to escalate, he said, serious national health problems were inevitable.

One-half of all hospital beds in the United States at that time were taken up by psychiatric patients. That figure could hit 95 percent if the incidence of divorce, child abuse, child molestation, and child neglect continue to soar. In that event, Dr. Nicholi said, we would also see vast increases in teen suicide, already up more than 300 percent in twenty-five years, drug abuse, crimes of violence, and problems related to sexual disorientation.

I have reason to understand a measure of the pain spoken of by Dr. Nicholi. I experienced it when I was six years old. My mother and father left me with my aunt for six months while they traveled. That last night together, I sat on my mother’s lap while she told me how much she loved me and that she and my father would come back for me as soon as they could. Then they drove away as the sun dropped below the horizon. I sat on the floor in the dark for an unknown period of time, fighting back the tears as depression engulfed me. That sorrowful evening was so intense that its pain can be recalled instantly today, almost seven decades later.

In short, even when parent-child separation occurs for valid reasons in a loving home, a boy or girl frequently interprets parental departure as evidence of rejection. If we have any choice in the matter, we should not put them through that painful experience.

QUESTION: What would your recommendation be to a young wife and mother whose husband is extremely violent and frequently abuses her and their children?

DR. DOBSON: She should get herself and her kids out of the home immediately. Abuse of spouses and children simply must not be tolerated. It’s against the law, and the law must be enforced. No one has to live in an abusive environment today.

Dr. Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 ( Questions and answers are excerpted from “Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide” and “Bringing Up Boys,” both published by Tyndale House. COPYRIGHT 2010 JAMES DOBSON INC.