Session: Helping Infants and Toddlers Cope with Separation from Parents (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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238 Helping Infants and Toddlers Cope with Separation from Parents

Friday, January 22, 2021: 3:45 PM-4:45 PM
Cluster: Mental Health
Tova Walsh, PhD, University of Wisconsin - Madison, Megan Finno-Velasquez, PhD, New Mexico State University, Brenda Jones-Harden, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Keva Miller, PhD, LCSW, Portland State University and Julie Poehlmann-Tynan, PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Millions of U.S. children have experienced disruption in their relationship with a parent due to child welfare intervention, parental incarceration, immigration detention or deportation, or military deployment, and such disruptions can have profound effects. When children are separated from their parents, they are more likely to experience trauma, stress, and a range of emotional and behavioral problems. Infants and toddlers are particularly vulnerable to stressors associated with prolonged separation from parents because of their limited coping skills, language skills, and profound dependence on adults. The impact of separation on young children is heavily influenced by children’s caregiving environments, and the caregiver who remains with the child faces the challenge of maintaining sensitivity to the child’s needs while coping with their own experience of stress or trauma.

This roundtable brings together a diverse group of scholars who are engaged in research on early relationship disruption and repair from a variety of perspectives. Abundant research demonstrates that young children develop best in the context of safe, stable, nurturing relationships. Loss, change, parental distress, and uncertainty, as well as the buffering role of caregivers, are common across different separation contexts, yet rarely do scholars who specialize in different separation contexts engage in a unified conversation about the consequences of separations and strategies to support young children and their families in sustaining and reestablishing relationships surrounding separation. These contexts differ as well, including stigma surrounding the reasons for parent-child separation and how family members or other caregivers talk to children about the absent parent, material well-being such as housing and employment stability, and overlap with child protective services.

First, we will briefly describe the state of the research with regard to child outcomes associated with early parent-child separations. Second, we will discuss what we have learned about interventions to support relationships during, and healing following, disruptions. Then, we will consider these issues from a comparative perspective, exploring the overlap and intersection of findings from the research on foster care, parental incarceration, detention or deportation, and military deployment. Finally, we will explore similarities and differences in policies relating to these different types of separation.

This roundtable will stimulate a rich discussion regarding how to help infants and toddlers cope with separation from parents, and how multiple areas of scholarship and practice can inform such efforts across contexts. Our goal is to encourage more scholars to engage in research in this area and to promote collaborations among scholars from different institutions, focused on different separation contexts, and across differing theoretical and methodological perspectives. There is pressing need for social work research to expand understanding of the causes and consequences of early relationship disruptions and effective approaches to supporting and restoring parent-child relationships, in order to inform policy and practice aimed at preventing and reducing the harm of early separations.

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