Families Belong Together: 4 Reasons Why Family Separations Are So Harmful
By Kalina Brabeck, PhD, & Christina M. Rodriguez, PhD (APA Committee on Children, Youth, and Families)
Any parent with a child in daycare knows the agony of leaving her/him that first day: Will he/she feel safe? Will he/she understand I’m coming back? Imagine that separation being indefinite. Unplanned. No chance to prepare your child. You don’t know and don’t trust the people who take your child. Those same people barely know your child’s name, much less their medical, educational, or family history. And you don’t know when—or even if—you’ll ever see your child again.
You don’t need to be a psychologist or even a parent to understand that the Trump Administration’s practice of separating immigrant parents from children causes substantial short- and long-term harm to children, parents, and families. Nonetheless, let’s review the research that makes this conclusion undeniable.
1. A stable parent-child relationship is foundational to children’s well-being
Decades of psychological research on attachment demonstrate the critical impact of the parent-child relationship on children’s development. Children’s self-esteem, interpersonal skills, and achievement are all crucially related to the reliability and predictably of their caregiver. When children are separated from their parents for foster care or parental incarceration, their risk for later mental health and substance use problems rises dramatically. Thus, child welfare workers assiduously avoid separating children from their parents whenever possible. When a child must be separated from a parent, interventions and support services are provided, actively preparing for reunification. Deliberately separating a child from a parent who is capable, willing—even desperate to care for her/him—defies everything we know about healthy development. Furthermore, placing children in unfamiliar settings ignores why we discontinued orphanages nearly half a century ago. Such parent-child attachment processes are so vital and widely recognized by professionals and the public alike, they undergird the basis of all US family court law.
2. Cumulative and prolonged stress and trauma harms children
Before reaching the US, many children arrive at the border having already experienced significant stress and trauma. Parents risk the perilous journey and uncertain welcome primarily because of deep poverty and community violence—both adverse childhood experiences (“ACEs”) that damage children’s development. The stressful journey to the US compounds those traumatic experiences because migrants are vulnerable to exploitation, theft, and abuse. Separation from parents at the border is layered onto these previous traumas—for both the child and parent.
Science has documented that the normally adaptive stress response system harms the brain when the system is chronically activated. Children—whose brain development is most vulnerable—show signs of damage from ACEs in areas that compromise learning, memory, and emotion. Chronic activation of the stress response system erodes executive functioning skills (e.g., the ability to control impulses, problem-solve, adapt to environmental conditions), which then in turn undermines adaptive behavior and school performance. Research consistently underscores that ACEs precipitate not only short-term but lifelong mental and physical health challenges. Children who experience chronic fear may lose their ability to distinguish safety from danger, becoming hypervigilant. Moreover, by withholding parental support during a traumatic period, we create conditions of “toxic stress.”
3. Family separation affects children of different ages in different ways
Very young preverbal children won’t comprehend why their parent is gone—they are likely to throw tantrums and cry inconsolably and uncontrollably. The visceral memory of their parent may fade over time. Elementary school children may blame themselves for the separation—some might be aware their parent fled their home country in part to protect the child. Adolescent children may realize their separation arose for reasons outside of their parent’s control, but such understanding reinforces beliefs that their future and the world are unpredictable and dangerous—where parents cannot protect them.
4. Reunifications will be complicated and cannot erase damage
Stopping the practice of separating families is essential but the harm for many families cannot be undone. Psychological studies on reunifications of foster children with biological parents highlight how separations impact the parent-child dynamic. Once reunited, many children adapt by acting as though parents are unnecessary. Parents, who were also traumatized, may respond defensively, initiating a problematic cycle. Feelings of resentment, distrust, and hurt can build on both sides.
Ensuring these traumatizing family separations are never repeated is merely the first step. The mental health needs of these parents and children because of these federal actions cannot be ignored. Trauma-informed care, particularly from mental health professionals experienced in delivering interventions for complex trauma, will be needed for these families. Yet providing even the best care cannot protect families and children from toxic policies. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded the American Psychological Association in 1967:
“I am sure that we will recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will.”
What can you do to help?
Send a message to Congress to keep families together and to protect DREAMer youth!
Christina Rodriguez, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Rodriguez obtained her PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Florida from the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology. She completed her pre-doctoral internship and postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Tennessee-Memphis. Throughout most of her training as a clinical psychologist, she specialized in clinical child psychology. Dr. Rodriguez currently directs the Parenting Challenges with Kids (PaCK) Lab at UAB. Most of her research interests have concentrated on clarifying factors that exacerbate parental risk for physical child abuse. She is particularly interested in potential cognitive processes that elevate the likelihood that a parent will transition from using physical discipline to harsher and ultimately abusive discipline. Dr. Rodriguez has considered such cognitive mechanisms in the context of both parental personal vulnerabilities and resiliencies. Dr. Rodriguez is also a member and current Chair of the APA Committee on Children, Youth and Families.
Kalina M. Brabeck, PhD, is a licensed counseling psychologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Counseling, Educational Leadership and School Psychology at Rhode Island College. She is an affiliated faculty member with the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, a Foundation for Child Development Young Scholar, and a Roger Williams University Latino Policy Institute Research Fellow. As a bilingual (Spanish/English) psychologist, Dr. Brabeck has worked as a researcher, advocate, and clinician with Latino immigrant families for the past 15 years. Her research explores the intersections among socio-structural challenges (e.g., poverty, racism, immigration status), family processes, and individual mental health and wellbeing. Since 2007, she has focused on the consequences of U.S. immigration policies and practices for Latino immigrant families and children. Dr. Brabeck is also a member of the APA Committee on Children, Youth and Families.
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