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The Lasting Trauma of Being Torn Away From Your Parents at the Border

Psychologists say the Trump administration's practice could bring children long-term developmental and psychological harm.
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If there were a sound that could encapsulate the Trump administration’s entire agenda, for some, it might be the following: children crying for their parents, having been separated from them at the United States border.

The audio, obtained by ProPublica and played at a Monday White House press briefing, is just one result of the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, under which any immigrant attempting to cross the border can be prosecuted. More than 2,000 children have been separated from their families over the last month, some of whom were reportedly told they were being taken from their parents for a bath only to never return to them.


The cries of “mami” and “papá” are only the tip of the iceberg for the children whose lives may be irreparably changed by the experience of being separated from their families.

Medical experts say such a separation constitutes a traumatic event of the highest order, and can shape a child’s cognitive development, mental health and, ultimately, the way they interact with the world for years to come.

“With toddlers, central to their development is a sense of security in their relationship with their parents — it gives them a sense that the world is a safe place, and that they can explore it,” Mark Reinecke, the chief of psychology in the department of psychiatry and behavioral studies, tells Broadly. “When they’re placed in a stressful situation, children will look to their parents for a cue as to how to respond.”

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions argues the children being housed in federal facilities — which include a former Walmart supercenter in Texas holding some 1,500 immigrant children — are being “well taken care of.” But psychologists say the quality of care is almost beside the point: Research shows that being separated from one’s parents early on can be an almost impossible hurdle to overcome, no matter the quality of care a child receives after the separation.

“Some people are reporting that the facilities are OK — but that doesn’t mean it’s OK that children are being separated,” Debra Zeifman, a psychology professor at Vassar College, tells Broadly. “Even when there are resources, and physical and hygienic needs are being met, children who endure a separation from their parents fail to thrive and develop normally on every level.”


Attachment theory, Zeifman said, helps explain why a separation can be so harmful for a child. According to the theory, now considered foundational to psychologists’ understanding of child development, the bond between young children and their caregivers determines a whole range of cognitive, social, and emotional outcomes.

But that hardly means older children who have experienced child separation under the Trump administration’s new practice are better off. Though they may be able to better understand what’s happening around them and make sense of it, they remain at risk for a range of mental health problems going forward.

“If I’m an adolescent, this is going to be the seminal event in my life,” Reinecke says. “The downstream effect can be feelings of depression, anxiety, irritability — becoming more volatile, more vigilant.” He adds: “There’s a whole range of emotional and social outcomes that can come from repeated, early instances of trauma.”

The medical community is united in its belief that the family separation practice can, and more than likely will, produce such effects. On Friday, the American Academy of Pediatrics penned a letter opposing the Border Security and and Immigration Reform Act, legislation that would address the status of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, cut back on legal immigration, crackdown on asylum seekers, help fund President Donald Trump’s much-promised border wall — but do nothing to end the separation of children and parents at the border.


“We know that family separation causes irreparable harm to children,” the academy wrote in its statement. “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.”

The child psychology experts who spoke with Broadly pointed out that those seeking asylum in the US have typically already endured immense stress from the dangerous conditions they’re fleeing in their native countries, only to encounter more of it at the hands of immigration officials.

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Zeifman noted that the trauma of this experience can have wide-ranging effects for family members and communities.

“There are a lot of potential mechanisms for intergenerational transmission of the trauma,” Zeifman says. “Even if you’re a US citizen, the fact that your parent isn’t and was treated like a criminal — these are horrific stories to hold inside. The fact that these kids have to keep these secrets is very costly.”