The current border crisis where children are being forcibly separated from their parents has many of us wondering about the impact of such a practice. As a child psychologist who understands the effects of trauma on a child’s mental health, cognitive and emotional development, physical health, social adjustment, interpersonal formation, and academic challenges, I am disheartened by what these innocent children have been experiencing. As a mother, I am filled with anguish when imagining the utter fear and terror of a child being pulled away from the safety of a parent or loved one.
A wealth of studies on attachment theories have stressed the importance of the early parent-child bond to a child’s well-being. Secure attachment to a primary caregiver is one of the foremost contributors to establishing healthy emotional and interpersonal growth. Decades of research on the lifelong outcomes of children being separated from their parents have repeatedly informed us that early trauma has significant hindrance on a child’s development and functioning.
On a cognitive level, a child will develop negative beliefs about her self-value, lack of ability and control, and the world being a threatening place. These maladaptive thought patterns become imprinted into the child’s neuropathways resulting in permanent damage to the brain. Emotionally, the child will feel a constant threat to her well-being which can translate to anxiety, depression, helplessness, and anger. On a physical level, being subjected to chronic and intense fear and horror compromises a child’s immune system to fight off illnesses and diseases. Socially, the child may be withdrawn, isolated, and distrusting of others. Interpersonally, the child is likely to be suspicious of others, have a hard time connecting authentically, and even act out defiantly in anger. Academically, a child who has experienced trauma may not have the motivation, drive, and belief in herself to meet the challenges of school-related tasks.
All of these consequences can result in a multitude of mental health conditions, including posttraumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and many potential others. As adults and role models to children, our primary role is to provide an environment that is safe for them to thrive. Many parents have asked how do they explain what’s happening to their own children. Listen to your children’s concerns, validate their feelings, be honest about your own feelings, and reassure that they are safe with you.
We have all been a helpless child once upon a time relying on those we trust to nurture, guide, and care for us. Many of us recall an early memory of getting lost at a store, feeling the sudden panic and terror as we realize that mommy or daddy is nowhere to be found. Take that frightful memory and multiply it by 100. This is what’s happening to the families being separated at our borders. And the memories will remain with these children and families for the rest of their lives.
For those of us in the mental health field, it is our duty to advocate and be the voice for these innocent children whose lives will be forever changed by this traumatic event. We don’t know what will happen to these children who have been separated from their parents. We don’t know whether these children will simply get lost in the system. We don’t know how many of these families will even be reunited. For those of us who work with children and families, we can be prepared to help them cope with the resulting terror, confusion, and anger. For further resources, please visit: