The Long-Lasting Mental Health Effects of Family Separation

Close-up of a child's drawing on a chalkboard depicting a familySince the United States Department of Justice announced its “Zero Tolerance Policy for Criminal Illegal Entry,” over 2,000 children have been separated from their guardians. Affected families include both those legally seeking asylum and those illegally crossing the border.

In the wake of public outcry, President Trump signed an executive order that may halt the practice of separating immigrants from their children. “It is also the policy of this Administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources,” the order said in part.

The order has drawn criticism for its failure to reunite the children who have already been taken from their parents. The American Psychological Association published a statement on June 20 about its concerns.

“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. In the interim, they should be assessed for and receive any needed mental or physical health care by qualified health care professionals.

“Decades of psychological research show that children separated from their parents can suffer severe psychological distress, resulting in anxiety, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, withdrawal, aggressive behavior, and decline in educational achievement. The longer the parent and child are separated, the greater the child’s symptoms of anxiety and depression become,” said APA President Jessica Herndon Daniel in the statement.

How Separating Parents From Children Harms Families

The Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) has also published a brief on the subject. The brief says even temporary separations can have long-lasting consequences for physical and mental health. The separations can impact parents, children, and communities.

The longer the parent and child are separated, the greater the child’s symptoms of anxiety and depression become.The brief draws on many studies of children separated from their parents. The research dates back to the forced separations of World War II.

The SRCD refers to parent-child separations as a “toxic stressor.” A stressor is an event that activates the body’s stress management system. A toxic stressor can cause a body to stay on high alert for a prolonged period.

Parent-child separations also remove children’s main buffer against other stressors. Many of the migrants attempting to cross the border have faced trauma such as gang violence, war, and rape. Children who are exposed to trauma do better when they have the support of their parents. Family separation can worsen the child’s stress from preexisting traumas.

Much research has focused on the separation of young children from their parents. Yet older children suffer too. Adolescent stress is often cumulative. For example, a teen exposed to the stress of gang violence in childhood will suffer even more trauma when separated from a parent. Stress experienced in adolescence may not produce symptoms till adulthood.

Long-Term Effects of Parent-Child Separation

The effects of parent-child separation can last well into adulthood. Family separation can put a child at greater risk for psychological issues such as:

Family separation can also cause long-term changes in how the body responds to stress. These changes may make children more vulnerable to physical health problems as adults. Medical issues could include stunted growth, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. A child may also develop an increased risk of premature death.

Previous research suggests countries with “supportive” immigration policies tend to have better overall mental health among child populations.

Witnessing parent-child separations can be stressful even for those with no direct connection to the issue. Lawyers, social workers, and others who work with families at the border may suffer vicarious trauma. Immigrant families may worry about their own safety. Those who have survived border separation may need help to recover.

If you have been affected by parent-child separation, even indirectly, a therapist can help you process your emotions. Therapy can offer support, hope, and resources. There is no shame in seeking help.

References:

  1. Bouza, J., Camacho-Thompson, D. E., Carlo, G., Franco, X. . . .White, R. M. (2018). The science is clear: Separating families has long-term damaging psychological and health consequences for children, families, and communities. Society for Research in Child Development. Retrieved from https://www.srcd.org/policy-media/statements-evidence/separating-families
  2. Cheng, A. (2018, June 21). Fact-checking family separation. ACLU. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/blog/immigrants-rights/immigrants-rights-and-detention/fact-checking-family-separation
  3. Hendry, E. R. (2018, June 20). Read Trump’s full executive order on family separation. PBS. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/read-trumps-full-executive-order-on-family-separation

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