Dear Doctor, 

The other day, my daughter, who is 3, was separated from me in the mall. She was playing in a store while I shopped. She was crying and terrified, but a stranger brought her to me. Do things like this stay with children and cause them harm?

Regretful Mom

Dear Mom,

As a rule, no, this will not cause her harm, although remnants and associated emotions may remain.

Every child experiences some sort of trauma during the early years. Separation from mother is not at all unusual. The emotion is a memory without words and is processed in the brain as such. There are times in a child’s or even an adult’s life that feelings and situations may be felt, even when the particular specifics of the event are not recalled.

Two cases out of scores come to mind. One was during the Christmas rush at a Boston department store. Mom was holding her daughter’s hand, but got into the elevator without her. The little girl had some moments of terror until Mom came back down to find her. Of course, Mom was hysterical, and this was more traumatic than the separation. This was the memory of an adult woman who developed a very strong control issue as she mothered her own teen children.

Another example is a man who recalled waking up from his nap as a 3- or 4-year-old. His mother was not in the house. He was beset with fears of abandonment. She was in the backyard talking with a neighbor. He had dreams associated with emotions from this event.

Trauma can be mild, as is the case here or with your daughter. It is often seen in emotions associated with adult behavior. Generally, it is integrated with other aspects of development and does not produce dire results. Reassurance, experience and love are the best medicine.

Dr. Larry Larsen is an Andover psychologist. If you would like to ask a question, or respond to one, email him at lrryllrsn@CS.com.

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