Separation from parents has long lasting effects into adulthood


By Maria G. Williams, a Licensed Family and Marriage Therapist and Clinical Supervisor at El Centro de Amistad

How many new parents have experienced the anxiety, sadness, and fear when their child is attending their first day of school? Many questions come up at the time that makes us wonder if the experience will harm our child forever. When in reality, it’s an experience that we all have as we encounter changes and transitions in life. However, the events at our border cannot be compared to this transition. The separations these children are experiencing will have long-lasting damages affecting their psychological and physical development.

In most cases, families are fleeing from their homelands and risking it all to have a new beginning free from violence, war, and life threats. These children have already been predisposed to toxic stress which then intensifies once they are separated from their parents.

Toxic stress is a term used by psychologists and developmental neurobiologists to describe the kinds of experiences, particularly in childhood, that can affect brain architecture and brain chemistry. Severe abuse during a child’s developmental years can be detrimental to the child’s brain development. A toxic stress response occurs when a child is experiencing strong, frequent and prolonged adversity. This type of response can disrupt the development of the brain architecture, other organ systems, as well as increase the risk for stress-related diseases and cognitive impairment into their adult years as discussed by The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University.

You may now be asking yourself what does toxic stress do to the body? When we feel threatened, the body produces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline through the body’s adrenal glands and tissues once the amygdala and hypothalamus have received signals of threat or danger. These hormones prepare the body to handle threats and trigger a “fight or flight” response. The body goes into survival mode, academic development, and even physical growth are put on hold. At the border, children are experiencing a prolonged state of toxic stress and a need to survive as their bodies are producing ongoing signals of fight or flight. As adults, the experience will create lifelong problems. 

Long-term damages may lead to physical, mental, and behavioral problems. Physically, the individual may have higher chances of developing chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder are among the mental health concerns that may be enduring. Some of the behavioral problems may include substance abuse and dependency, which can lead to a multitude of other problems.

It is not too late to begin to reverse these effects of separation and loss these children are experiencing. The number one buffer is the relationship these children have with their parents. The attachment that they have formed with their caregivers can begin to alleviate the suffering and trauma they have experienced.

These children will need support for the huge changes they have endured. The support will have bigger chances of undoing the damage that has been inflicted with the assistance of a mental health professional to assist the family in incorporating a safe, consistent, and predictable environment to ensure the attachment continues to be developed. This treatment will assist in transitioning these children back to the permanency they once had as their “fight or flight” responses begin to return to normal levels. 

This is more than an issue of immigration. It is a medical and psychological issue that needs to be addressed.