What Happens Inside Children When They're Separated From Their Parents


a number of strong articles about the trauma caused by family separations are emerging. They're a good resource for anyone interested in a trauma-informed approach to sharing mindfulness with kids and families.

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A number of strong articles about the trauma caused by separating families emerged in response to the separation of parents and children at the border without any clear plan or protocol to keep track of them while they’re apart. These articles are a good resource for anyone interested in a trauma-informed approach to sharing mindfulness with kids and families. Here’s a digest of a few of them. 

In The Washington Post, Charles Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School, is quoted as saying that the effect of forcibly separating children from their parents "is catastrophic.” He continues, “There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.”  Here's what happens inside children when they are forcibly separated from their parents.

Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites — the little branches in brain cells that transmit mes­sages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.  Read more.

In a piece on the effects of parental separation on children, The Wall Street Journal writes:  

For children of all ages, the loss of a caregiver activates the biological response to stress, which includes increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as elevated hormone levels. If the biological response is continuously engaged, it begins to cause “wear and tear” on the child’s body, according to Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. 

“For very young children, this is probably going to have the greatest impact because the relationship between infant/young child and their caregivers is so important,” said Adam Brown, a psychology professor at New York University Langone Medical Center who studies traumatic stress in children. “The most intensive brain development occurs in these early years.”  But, Dr. Brown added, the response can be just as strong in older children. Even if development isn’t affected in the same way, older children can respond to chronic stress by becoming withdrawn and dissociative, or more physically aggressive. Read more.

An article in Vox further explains the effects of toxic stress on children:

When kids experience scary things, it activates something called their fight-or-flight response. The amygdala, which is the fear center in the brain, is activated, and that triggers the release of a cascade of stress hormones.

Normally, what happens when anyone of us is faced with a threat is that there is activation of this fight-or-flight response: the brain activation of the stress response leading to it, the body’s activation of all these stress hormones.

Particularly for children, one of the most important factors is having a nurturing caregiver who the child trusts — that actually helps to support the child to biologically turn off that biological stress response.

One way this happens: Oxytocin is a bonding hormone. For anyone who’s ever had a baby, it’s a hormone that we use to augment labor — it stimulates contractions of the uterus — and it’s this incredibly strong bonding hormone so that when the baby comes out, you look at the baby and you’re just like, “I love you so much!”

What’s interesting is that when parents hug or snuggle or give kisses to their children, it increases the release of oxytocin in the child’s body. And oxytocin, as a chemical hormone, inhibits the activation of the stress response. So it actually helps to calm down and biologically buffer the stress response.

But if it’s a stranger that you don’t know, you don’t get that same effect.

When children are faced with high doses of adversity, in the absence of that buffering caregiving, what happens is that the stress response system doesn’t turn itself off normally. And that leads to a condition that is now known as toxic stress, in which we have overactivity of the stress response, abnormal levels of stress hormones.

And that changes the structure and function of children’s developing brain, their developing immune system, their hormonal system, and even the way that DNA is read and transcribed.

So how we see that in the short term is that kids are at greater risk for infection, growth problems, sleep problems, problems with digestion, and increased risk of autoimmune disease. And in the long term, what we see is increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and other health conditions.  Read more.

An article in The Washington Post, reminds us that the trauma of separation lingers long after children are reunited with parents.  

For some, [given the Trump administration's executive order suspending family separations at the border] the crisis may now seem resolved. But experts warn that for many of those children, the psychological damage of their separation will require treatment by mental health professionals — services they are extremely unlikely to receive because of U.S. government policies for undocumented migrants.

“It’s not like an auto body shop where you fix the dent and everything looks like new. We’re talking about children’s minds,” said Luis H. Zayas, professor of social work and psychiatry at the University of Texas at Austin.   Read more.

The post article further reminds us that Trump’s order suspends the recent child-parent separations at the border but doesn’t address immigration policies that are causing children to be separated from parents on a larger scale. 

In 2015, for example, the Department of Homeland Security deported more than 12,000 immigrant parents with U.S. citizen children — causing many of those families to split.

“The outrage that people have been facing the past few days, I wish people would keep in their minds that this is continuing to happen in our country every day,” Cardoso said. “What we’ve all been focused on at the border, it’s just a microcosm of the trauma that is happening and will continuing to happen.”  Read more.

This isn’t the first time that children have been separated from their parents. The Washington Post reports on what World War II’s “Operation Pied Piper’ taught us about the trauma of family separations. 

Millions of children in England who were evacuated from cities and towns during World War II, in what was dubbed “Operation Pied Piper.” The mass evacuations were intended to keep British children safe — or safer, theoretically — from German air raids, while their parents stayed behind to work and help out with war efforts. The hope was that children relocated to the countryside would escape not only bombs but the psychological scars of war. However, former child evacuees and experts learned later that Operation Pied Piper had an unexpected side effect: The separations seemed to impart long-term trauma that was in many cases as severe as if they had stayed behind and faced the bombs.  Read more.


casey altman