University psychologists implement programs to ease effects of parent-child separation

Monday, September 3, 2018 - 5:44pm

Katherine Rosenblum, a University professor of psychiatry and the founder of Strong Military Families, teaches a group how to code interviews.

Katherine Rosenblum, a University professor of psychiatry and the founder of Strong Military Families, teaches a group how to code interviews. Buy this photo
Photo Courtesy of Kate Rosenblum

University of Michigan have made strides in studying the effects of child separation and the psychological impact it has on families in cases of incarceration, military deployment, and border separation. This data has helped University psychologists implement programs such as Strong Military Families,  Zero to Thrive and Parenting While Incarcerated, which focus on curbing the negative effects that may have occurred within the family unit due to separation interference.

Katherine Rosenblum, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University and the founder of Strong Military Families, said this research is so important because there are still misconceptions about the severity of separation. 

“I do think that often the emotional experiences of infants, toddlers and young children are overlooked or misunderstood, and that parents are often surprised by how impactful these experiences are even for very young children,” Rosenblum said. “And of course, parents have their own feelings about these experiences. Therefore, support for families who have experienced disruptive separations is very important.”

Rosenblum said this support can come in many different forms, such as distributing information on what to expect from children, connecting families experiencing similar trauma or connecting families to advocacy organizations who can offer additional services.

Rosenblum’s 11-year-old daughter, Maja Rosenblum-Muzik, created a publicly available coloring book in conjunction with Rackham student Paige Safyer titled “Cecilia and the Long Walk." The coloring book illustrates a separation scenario through the perspective of the child.

The book follows the main character, Cecilia, who is a horse traveling across a border with her parents. This resource was created to “help children understand their recent experience, providing language to help organize internal confusion and terror,” according to their website.

Rosenblum wrote an op-ed for The Hill this past June, where she argues her research on military families can be used to explain the severity of separation at the border. She also explains every experience is different for each family— at the border or in the military — but there are certainly similarities that should be extrapolated.

“My point in sharing our work with military families was not to say that the experiences on the border are the same,” she told The Daily. “Obviously there are many differences in the experiences of military families and families on the border. My point was to highlight that even when there is time to prepare and access to resources, support, and information during the separation, the disruption is still impactful and emotionally challenging. Therefore, separations should not be taken casually.”

Public Health professor Alison Miller has also researched parent-child separation. She partnered with Motherly Intercession to create a program called Parenting While Incarcerated, which helps mothers continue to develop their parenting skills while behind bars.

Miller said her evidence-based program was created in response to incarcerated mothers’ needs. This educational opportunity allows these mothers to improve communication skills and develop nonviolent discipline strategies.

“The program allows mothers to step back from the immediacy of parenting and reflect on the relationships with their children in a way they haven’t done before,” Miller said.

Another University initiative, Zero to Thrive, is led by Rosenblum and psychiatry professor Maria Muzik, along with Miller. Zero to Thrive focuses specifically on the first 1,000 days of an infant's life and the critical role that stress can play in development.

The initiatives that arose out of the University’s research on child separation are benchmark programs for other organizations these seeking solutions. And with the recent child separations at the border, Rosenblum hopes these findings will shed light on the caliber of the repercussions.

“For an infant, being abruptly separated from your parent for several days is an eternity, and likely traumatizing,” she said. “The parents and infants at the border experienced these separations under significant duress, often without any information about what was happening and when or if they would see each other again. There is no doubt that this was extremely traumatizing for many of these parents and children, and that there will be a need to work through the feelings associated with that trauma after they reunite. Healing takes time.”