Separating children from parents can have significant health consequences, psychologist says

June 22, 2018 by Brian Mcneill, Virginia Commonwealth University
Credit: Virginia Commonwealth University

The Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy has led to more than 2,300 children being separated from their parents.

While the administration on Wednesday reversed course to allow migrant families to avoid separation by being detained together, the sad truth is that for some children damage has already been done, according to Michael A. Southam-Gerow, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, who leads a lab focused on the improvement of for children and families.

In what ways can being separated from their parents affect a child's health? And how long can these traumatic health impacts last?

There are significant impacts on children when separated from caregivers in the manner that appears to be happening. These are traumatic separations, without clear communication between the child and caregiver.

Very young children may have trouble even comprehending the meaning of the separation, which could create panic and significant levels of anxiety. These have on a child's short-term and long-term health.

Older children may have some understanding of the situation but will lack the support network needed to help them cope.

In terms of health risks, we are talking about stress-related problems that could lead to reduce immune system functioning, depressed appetite, apathy and lethargy. Post-traumatic stress disorder is one long-term risk to consider. The problem may manifest weeks or months later and can lead to lasting impairment for those affected.

Other mental health effects may manifest later, including separation anxiety and depression. One also would be concerned about disruptions in attachment, as some of the children appear to have been quite young.

Has research been conducted that looks at similar situations to what the U.S. has been doing?

There is some research. As you might imagine, these situations are incredibly difficult and stressful for the families. In general, the families are escaping a traumatic and in their home country. The voyage to the new country is often harrowing. There have been studies of refugee families across multiple generations. One large-scale national study in Europe found long-term impacts on physical health for refugee families during the World War II era.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Separating from their caregivers for any reason is stressful and difficult for all involved. Science and practice has helped inform policy in the U.S. in the past to avoid these separations as much as possible.

Explore further: Expert discusses how border separations can traumatize children

Related Stories

Expert discusses how border separations can traumatize children

June 22, 2018
Unplanned separation from parents is among the most damaging events a young child can experience, according to trauma research. A Stanford expert explains how it can hurt kids' development.

Forced separation can cause long-term mental health problems for children

May 23, 2018
In two speeches [recently] in the border states of Arizona and California, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that as a matter of enforcement, if an unauthorized migrant brings a child across the United States-Mexico ...

Why long-term separation from parents harms kids

June 6, 2018
As a society, we often wax eloquent about how important it is to nurture, support and protect our children. The sad reality, however, is that all too often major, life-changing decisions are made without any consideration ...

Children of separated parents not on speaking terms more likely to develop colds as adults

June 5, 2017
Previous research has indicated that adults whose parents separated during childhood have an increased risk for poorer health. However, exactly what contributes to this has been less clear, until now.

Trauma takes a toll on half of U.S. kids

October 24, 2017
(HealthDay)—Nearly half of American children have faced at least one traumatic experience, such as the death of a parent, witnessing a violent crime or living with someone who is suicidal or abuses drugs or alcohol, new ...

Recommended for you

WHO recognises 'compulsive sexual behaviour' as mental disorder

July 15, 2018
The World Health Organization has recognised "compulsive sexual behaviour" as a mental disorder, but said Saturday it remained unclear if it was an addiction on a par with gambling or drug abuse.

How looking at the big picture can lead to better decisions

July 13, 2018
New research suggests how distancing yourself from a decision may help you make the choice that produces the most benefit for you and others affected.

Nature is proving to be awesome medicine for PTSD

July 13, 2018
The awe we feel in nature can dramatically reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to UC Berkeley research that tracked psychological and physiological changes in war veterans and at-risk inner-city youth ...

Is depression during pregnancy on the rise?

July 13, 2018
(HealthDay)—Today's young mothers-to-be may be more likely to develop depression while pregnant than their own mothers were, a new study suggests.

Machine learning helps to predict the treatment outcomes of schizophrenia

July 12, 2018
Could the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders one day be aided through the help of machine learning? New research from the University of Alberta is bringing us closer to that future through a study published ...

Mental illness study to explore patients' self-assessments

July 12, 2018
As the mental health community pursues new ways to improve the lives of the severely ill, a University of Texas at Dallas researcher is focusing on what can be learned from patients' answers to a simple question: "How do ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Anonym518498
not rated yet Jun 22, 2018
What about the psychological stress on families who have been PERMANENTLY separated from their loved ones by killer illegal aliens?

Give me a break!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.