The Science Behind Parent-Child Separations At the U.S. Border

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In an attempt to prevent immigrants from entering the U.S. by way of Mexico, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a “Zero Tolerance Policy for Criminal Illegal Entry.” While this may sound like business as usual at the border, it clearly isn’t. Since April, more than 2,000 children have been taken from their parents’ custody and processed in separate facilities, with no word on where they went or when they’d be returned to their families.

And although overwhelming outcry forced President Trump to sign an executive order that supposedly ends these  separations, there appears to be no clear reunification plan in sight.  Photos and reports from one Border Patrol facility in  South Texas showed nearly 20 children crammed into what resembled a cage.

Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you call home, it’s impossible to deny the spirit of cruelty that pervades this policy.  And to  tell families that they should stay  home if they don’t want their kids taken is as simplistic and one-dimensional as it is vicious.  For one thing, this position ignores the intertwined geopolitical fate shared by the U. S. and Latin American countries.

What is not in dispute, however, are the long-lasting effects that occur when the parent-child bond is severed.

A recent article published in the Society for Research in Child Development featured an extensive literature search on the subject of parent-child separation.  Johayra Bouza and colleagues found that children separated from parents suffer prolonged stress and trauma, which can lead to  problems with emotional attachment, decreased  self-esteem, as well as physical and psychological illnesses.  Depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), behavioral problems, decreased IQ scores, anxiety, heart disease and high blood pressure are the legacies they endure, often for a lifetime.

Their article also noted that stress and trauma can affect brain structure and function.  One study included in their survey ( Lupien et. al, 2009) found that prolonged stress alters certain areas of the brain, depending on the age of the child.  Kids under the age of twelve who experienced prolonged stress often sustain changes in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that controls functions such as memory and emotion. This leaves them vulnerable to major depression, and in many cases, symptoms don’t show  until later in life, when the brain’s synaptic growth is complete.

Hardship in adolescence resulted in changes to the frontal lobe, which is responsible for judgement, problem solving, language, impulse control, and social and sexual behavior.  Changes in this area due to trauma and stress are commonly associated with PTSD.

While the media currently spotlights forced separations at the border, parents and children also become separated during the migration process, when youngsters stay behind with relatives while their parents establish a home in the U.S.  Regardless of the situation, the psychological impact of prolonged separation is strongly felt.

According to University of Maryland researchers Tim Grindling and Sara Poggio , teens who become separated  during migration have the most trouble adjusting to the school environment, and often fail to complete high school. Compared to age-related peers who migrated with their parents or were born to Latino families in the U.S., 40% of youngsters who were separated from their parents  dropped out of school. Grindling and Poggio’s study included a survey completed by school professionals and immigrant parents. Both the counselors and parents agreed that teens showed more emotional and discipline problems than children who arrived at younger ages.

Children  of undocumented parents often do not receive necessary services from the community, so teachers and other school professionals can help fill the gap.

Dr. Bruce D. Perry ( outlines steps that parents, caregivers, teachers and other professionals can take in order to help a child through the trauma once reunification has occurred. Several of them are listed below:

  1.  Talk about the trauma-let the child bring it up, and when they do, try to answer questions, and offer comfort and support.
  2. Prevent others from asking uncomfortable questions or from bringing up the trauma if it’s too difficult for the child to discuss.
  3. Provide consistency throughout the day, via chores, routines.
  4. Give the child choices-this can offer a sense of control, which children often feel they’ve lost following the traumatic incident.







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