Separation trauma has lifetime consequences

Most of us who have listened to the sound of a detained child wailing for their parent, or have seen the photograph of the Honduran girl sobbing in fear as her parent was frisked,  experience distress, anxiety, and even outrage. This is because humans are wired to attach emotionally to others. Distressed children evoke a care-taking response in most of us, making a crying child hard to ignore. We instinctively want to comfort, and when we can’t we become angry. Consequently, as anger rose worldwide, President Trump’s Executive Order on Wednesday was met with a huge sigh of relief.

Our parents are our first attachment figures, and how safe and secure we felt with them  has effects throughout our adulthood. If adults grow up with an unreliable, narcissistic, cold, or absent parent they have difficulties feeling safe in their adult relationships, and  suffer from lowered self-worth. Warmth and physical affection in the early years are critical to the development of self-soothing ability and healthy attachments in adulthood. 

Research has shown that children in distress need physical comfort. It is a biological need. In some cases, separated from their parents, children who are not hugged and comforted can die from what has been called “anaclitic depression.” We hope it is fake news, but if it’s true that detained children were not allowed to be comforted physically, then we have damaged these children irreparably. Research on separated children reveals that they go through a number of stages of loss. The first stage is protest evidenced by crying, wailing and begging for the parent, essentially protesting the loss. Vigorous protest is what we hear and see in the children detained at the Mexican border. If the parent initially doesn’t respond to this protest, the child goes into despair, evidencing a sobbing, quieter, less vocal response. If the parent is still not available, the child eventually detaches and evidences the haunted, vacant look seen in war ravaged refugees. Detachment brings relief but it is a sign of severe, sometimes irreversible, trauma. From birth to three years old is considered a critical period for attachment; the worst outcomes are seen when a child suffers attachment trauma during these years without a comforting caretaker.  

While watching children in anguish is painful, for psychologists it has been particularly distressing as we know that once a child detaches, (in other words, no longer cares) it is hard to reactivate the attachment mechanism and switch it back on. The resulting detachment has been called “affectionless psychopathology,” that is, an inability to care. Healing such a disorder can take years as the child goes through anxiety, anger, clinging and rejecting behavior before the ability to trust can return. Some children will become numb and uncaring, others angry and destructive. In certain cases, traumatized children develop personality disorders that make it difficult for them to become responsible members of society. More people who are broken in their ability to care for others is bad for society. While the impact will vary, most separated children will experience trauma with resulting anxiety, depression and distrust of others. The effects can last for years. 

The searing images of children separated from their parents is negatively affecting the reputation of the United States in the eyes of the world. This is part of the reason that though previous administrations have unsuccessfully grappled with the problem of illegal immigration, none has seriously considered parent-child separations a viable option. Regardless of politics and opinions, we must find a better way to deal with the migrant problem. Furthermore, our judiciary understands the harm caused by parent-child separation since separation anxiety is often associated with difficult divorces. There have been divorce cases in which it has been deemed child abuse for one parent to cause a separation between the child and the other parent. Regardless of the reason or entity responsible for a separation, putting a child’s personality structure and ability to form attachment bonds at risk is not just bad for children but for society in the long run. We are all grateful this will not continue!

Co-Written by Drs. Amanda Borlenghi, Psy.D. and RIchard Levak, Ph.D.