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  • Writer's pictureAllison Abrams, LCSW-R

Damage of Separating Families

The psychological effects on children

According to the Department of Homeland Security, over 2,300 migrant children have been separated from their families since May. As of this writing, there is no concrete plan for how, when or if these families will be reunited.

The current administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border is what Colleen Kraft, MD, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), is calling a form of child abuse.

“We know that family separation causes irreparable harm to children,” says Kraft. “This type of highly stressful experience can disrupt the building of children’s brain architecture. Prolonged exposure to serious stress—known as toxic stress—can lead to lifelong health consequences.”

Damage already done

Every second away from a parent is one second too long—Dr. Dawn McCarty.

In response to President Donald Trump’s recently signed Executive Order ending the separation of children and families, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a statement urging lawmakers to adopt policies that are “humane” and that “take into account the harmful, long-term psychological effects of separation on children and their families.” APA president Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, states:

While we are gratified that President Trump has ended this troubling policy of wresting immigrant children from their parents, we remain gravely concerned about the fate of the more than 2,300 children who have already been separated and are in shelters. These children have been needlessly traumatized and must be reunited with their parents or other family members as quickly as possible to minimize any long-term harm to their mental and physical health. This is not an acceptable policy to counter unlawful immigration.

Dr. Dawn McCarty, director of University of Houston-Downtown’s Social Work Program, works with immigrants and asylum seekers who have been faced with separation from their families. Until this recent situation, she says, children weren’t typically taken away from both caregivers.

“These children have no idea what’s going on. They’ve already undergone a traumatic process of leaving their country and arriving here. Now, they are separated from their caregivers.” When a child has been traumatized, McCarty says, they should be surrounded by support and resources, including counseling and restored security. Unfortunately, many will not have these support resources. “They will not be in conditions that will immediately help them move forward. They may be reunited with their families or sent elsewhere. Either way, they will be released into family systems that are already distressed.”

Impact on health

Children who experience trauma are at a much greater risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, addiction, ADHD and PTSD. Their physical health is also negatively affected.

“Young children tend to internalize trauma and negative experiences,” says Lauren Aycock Anderson, a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist in Baltimore, MD. “This can have devastating long-term effects on the psyche and can lead to self-destructive behaviors as an adult.” Children also don’t have the language to express what has happened to them, so temporarily you’re likely to see a lot of somatic symptoms such as loss of appetite, stomach aches and headaches. Trauma tends to live in the body, so these types of symptoms could even become chronic if left untreated.

According to one study, the effects of mother-child separation on children’s aggressive behavior are early and persistent. Separation for as short as a week within the first two years of life was related to higher levels of child negativity and aggression


According to attachment theory, secure attachment comes from the child’s perceptions of his or her caregiver’s availability (physical accessibility). In their research, attachment theorists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth demonstrated that separations as brief as one week in duration could negatively impact the quality of attachments. “In contrast to children who develop secure attachments, children who experience separations develop insecure/disorganized attachment and persisting high levels of stress,” says Dr. Katie Davis. “When children believe their parents are unavailable, they become traumatized because they do not understand the reason for the absence and the timing of return.”

“Aside from the basic needs that parents provide to their kids, they also provide the stable and secure bond that children need in order to support healthy attachments,” says Christanne Kernes, a licensed marriage and family therapist and cofounder of mental health app LARKR. “When children are exposed to traumatic events and stressors, such as forceful separation from their parents/caregivers, their sense of safety and security is disrupted.”


Kernes points out that most of these migrant children have already experienced trauma in their native lands from exposure to danger, violence and other stressors significant enough for these children to develop PTSD. These issues, she says, are then exacerbated by the forceful separation from their parents.

As a member of Physicians for Human Rights’ Asylum Network, psychotherapist Silvia M. Dutchevici, MA, LCSW, conducts psychological evaluations documenting evidence of torture and persecution for survivors fleeing danger in their home countries. She has counseled and interviewed many refugees who either were separated from their parents at a young age or are the parents of those children. Dutchevici equates the separation of children from families with torture. “Most [of the children],” she says, “will develop PTSD. Displaced children learn that the world is unsafe, that people cannot be trusted, and that attachment and love causes deep pain. The child’s sense of safety and security is broken at the moment when their parent disappears.

Disruptions in brain development

According to The National Center for PTSD, traumatic stress has been associated with lasting changes in key areas of the brain and with increased cortisol and norepinephrine responses to subsequent stressors.

“There are so many things that can go wrong developmentally for the child,” says trauma specialist Ginger Poag, MSW, LCSW, CEMDR. “The brain is impacted severely; the body is being continuously flooded with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. When stress hormones are released on a continual basis, we can see brain development disrupted and neurological damage.”

“The saddest part about this type of traumatic event and its negative impact on children is that it’s completely avoidable.” says Kernes. “And if they do not get the help that they need while their brains are still developing, this will have a lasting impact on their well-being as adults.”

A dangerous slippery slope

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. —George Santayana, The Life of Reason

Rachelle Goldstein is the co-director of the Hidden Child Foundation, which represents Holocaust survivors like herself who were hidden during the war when they were young. “The separation of family was probably the worst thing that ever happened to us,” Goldstein said. “You take a child away from the parents, from the home, from everything they know—they are never the same.” She says that many children separated from their parents during the Holocaust have still not overcome the trauma.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Council for Public Affairs refers to the “zero-tolerance” policy as “unconscionable”:

This policy undermines the values of our nation and jeopardizes the safety and well-being of thousands of people. Many of these migrant families are seeking asylum in the United States to escape violence in Central America. Taking children away from their families is unconscionable. Such practices inflict unnecessary trauma on parents and children, many of whom have already suffered traumatic experiences. Separating families is a cruel punishment for children and families simply seeking a better life and exacerbates existing challenges in our immigration system. It adds to the backlog of deportation cases and legal challenges in federal courts, places thousands more immigrants in detention facilities and shelters, endangers the lives of more children.

The letter, published on June 12, urges leaders to immediately rescind the policy and “uphold the values of family unity and justice on which our nation was built.”

Implications for society

Ironically, the traumatic events that are taking place today may actually end up producing the very outcomes its enforcers are purporting to prevent.

“What these children are experiencing when being separated from their parents in a foreign country, with a different culture and a new language, would be considered a traumatic event, even if temporary.” says licensed mental health counselor Maryellen Newman. “My clinical opinion,” she says, “is that we are creating a subset of immigrant children with trauma histories that will likely go untreated and may develop into lifelong deficits and struggles.”

“Early childhood trauma places a heavy burden on society,” according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. “It can lead to dependence on a wide range of systems, such as child welfare, juvenile and criminal justice, and physical and behavioral health [and] can manifest in later behaviors that disrupt school and work environments.” Then there are the financial consequences. “In the United States alone, the estimated total lifetime cost to society associated with one year of confirmed cases of child maltreatment is $124 billion.”

Judge Anthony Capizzi of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFC), in a statement, calls for children to be reunited with their families and not subject to further trauma. “Not only are these children immediately traumatized,” he says, “but also their chance for a productive and happy life is significantly reduced by their experience.” According to Capizzi, in cases of similarly situated children in juvenile and family courts, the council works with all parties involved to give those children an opportunity to see their parents regularly and to gain a safe, permanent, and stable home.

What will be the effects of creating a generation of traumatized children … children who will grow up to be adults with a strong distrust of authority and a lack of a sense of safety in the world? The forcible removal of children from their families, without cause, not only affects the individuals involved, but has much broader implications and ultimately affects us all.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today.


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