The Trauma of Separation

The Trauma of Separation

Warfare. Famine. Poverty. Mass migration. Genocide.

These are all grim circumstances that researchers and psychologists look upon as important learning moments. Such events tell us a great deal about the impacts of adversity on mental health. Although valuable wake-up calls, they are dreadful nonetheless.

They’ve gathered stories of orphans warehoused by labor facilities in Russia, Syrian children forced to become breadwinners of their younger siblings, young refugees fleeing to Los Angeles from El Salvador, and the dispatch of Rwandan children from their guardians. Child development studies were conducted, with robust experiments involving brain scans and extensive surveys to gain population-level perspectives. All of these endeavors were meant to help us understand what it means to experience extreme hardships.

And they all pointed to the same conclusion: separating children from parents proves fundamentally harmful for their mental health.

Since May 2018, 2,300 children have been separated from their parents as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. Later on, however, the President signed an executive order to put a halt to this policy.

These separations not only manifest tragedy, but also severe trauma. And the consequences of such trauma are likely to persist well beyond a reunion. In fact, they could be irreversible and even carried on to future generations.

Here’s why:

Developing brains are the most vulnerable.

Medical director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center, Dr. Lisa Fortuna, explains to the Business Insider that young children have yet to develop the ability to cope and self-soothe. As a result, the trauma of separation makes them more susceptible to depression and PTSD. “In vulnerable developing brains, this is especially harmful,” reports the Business Insider. According to Dr. Fortuna, the regions of the brain that manage fear responses — the amygdala and hippocampus — develop differently in children who are traumatized. This results in persistent negative emotions, maladaptive behaviors, and conflictual attachments.

Behavioral difficulties can be modeled to future generations.

An Australian study by Silburn et al. found that individuals who were forcibly separated from their parents were twice as likely to be charged with crime, 60% more likely to have alcohol abuse disorders, and more than twice as likely to develop gambling problems. The study speculates that this is a long-term consequence of trauma. When these individuals proceed into adulthood and raise children, their behavioral issues can be modeled and learned. As a result, future generations continue to experience the impact of trauma from previous generations. In fact, the Silburn study found that children of individuals who had been separated from their parents have double the risk emotional and behavioral problems.

Separated children are more likely to face additional traumatic events.

Social work professor from the University of Houston, Dr. Jodi Cardoso, studied a group of unaccompanied children (not forcibly separated from their parents). The average age of this group was 14. Without the authority and protection of their caregivers, these children experienced an average of eight traumatic life events. These events included witnessing violence, kidnapping, and sexual assault. 60% of the children had PTSD and 30% had depressive disorder. As a result, the trauma compounds. Beginning with a lack of support, one traumatic event piles on top of more, increasingly impacting a child’s emotional and behavioral problems.

We’ve seen it happen – time and time again.

Researchers have culled a significant amount of work on childhood adversity, from which we can gage at the consequences of child separation. Child abuse and neglect are prime examples, because such instances mirror the situation of a child who does not have a caregiver to begin with. In both cases, the child lacks the support that is meant to shape their personal development.

Additionally, both cases leave the same scars: trust issues, social and emotional problems that affect all other interpersonal relationships and everyday functioning. Historical upheavals, such as the Holocaust, the Salvadoran civil war, and the Rwandan genocide found that the impact of trauma can vary. Different children experience and cope with separation trauma in different ways. Yet, all-in-all, the general trend shows a notable disruption of mental health.

By Tasfia Jahangir