A recent study shows significant stress early in life such as parental separation can pose lifelong impacts depending on the timing of the stress exposure.
Studies in the past have shown that stressful events early in life can cause social and behavioral problems that carry on into adulthood. The new research suggests this is not necessarily the case, but that the timing of the event can make the difference. For the study researchers studied 15 monkeys, as past research has shown the animals are excellent models for understanding the impacts of early childhood stress. The infant monkeys were divided into three groups. The first group was separated from their mothers during the first week of life, before social skills develop. The second group was separated when they were 1 month old, when social skills develop. The third group was a control group.
Results of the study showed that lifelong behavioral patterns depend on the timing of the separation. Monkeys separated at 1 week of age were less social going into their adult lives. These monkeys also displayed less social dominance in group settings. In contrast, monkeys separated at 1 month old displayed increases in social dominance, social-comfort seeking, and overall sociability.
In another study, researchers separated infant monkeys from their mothers during the first week of life and then placed them in social groups of other monkeys. They were paired with adoptive "super moms." Researchers found that timing of the pairing impacted the monkeys' behavior. Monkeys paired with an adoptive parent during the first month of life rapidly reversed atypical behaviors that began after the initial separation. However, monkeys paired in the third month of life continued to exhibit atypical behaviors, such as social isolation and thumb or toe sucking.
In conclusion researchers say that children separated from their mothers at birth should be placed in nurturing, stable care situations as soon as possible to reduce the chances of developing socioemotional problems.