US border crisis: how does separating children from parents affect them?

Images of youths behind metal fences and reports of children crying for their parents have raised concern about the psychological ramifications of separation
AFP

Tampa (AFP) – US President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy has led to thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border, stoking global outrage.

Images of youths behind metal fences and reports of children crying for their parents have raised concern about the psychological ramifications of the practice.

Separating children from their parents can cause lasting trauma, anxiety and depression, and even health problems later in life, said Judith Cohen, a professor of psychiatry at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia and an internationally recognized expert on childhood trauma.

The following are highlights of an interview with Cohen about the current crisis:

– What damage can these separations cause, and who is most at risk? –

“First, it is important to put in context that a lot of these children have already experienced traumas. They are fleeing traumatic, life-threatening situations in their home countries — gang violence, domestic violence, sexual violence. These are not children with normal, healthy brains and bodies to start with. 

“If you start with a traumatized child and then you add the trauma of being separated in a sudden, frightening manner from their parent, you are removing a source of protection and support.

“It is sudden. It is chaotic, frightening and scary. They have a minute to plan for it. Other children are crying and sobbing around them.

“What we are doing with these kids who have experienced trauma is taking them away from their parents at the very time when they need them the most. And we are really putting these kids at risk for developing trauma responses.

“The younger the child, the more… it feels like a life threat.

“Young children have immature brains and they depend very much on the support of a caregiver to help regulate what they can’t regulate with their own brains and bodies.

“Kids under 10-12 are considered younger children, and for them this impact is more pronounced.”

– Is this child abuse? – 

“It is intentional infliction of harm. Whether that meets the definition of ‘child abuse’ depends on the jurisdiction.”

– What are the long-term risks? – 

“We know there are changes to the child’s brain structure and the younger the child is, the more profound and potentially lasting these changes are. It can be lifelong.

“We have found that adults who endured early childhood traumas had mental health problems and more strikingly physical problems that lasted throughout their lifetime. Every organ system in their body was affected because trauma affects your immunologic system, your ability to fight off diseases.”

– What have we learned from foster care that applies to this practice? –

“I’ve seen thousands of children in the course of my 40 years in practice who were placed in foster care, and they were placed in foster care because they were abused or neglected or both. Despite that, many of these children said the worst thing that happened to me was not the physical abuse or the sexual abuse I experienced, it was not the week when I was drinking toilet water, it was because my mother was out using drugs, or it was the moment I was taken away from my mother. 

“So that puts it in perspective, that despite the horrific abuse and neglect these kids experienced, their worst thing that happened was being taken away from those parents. And that speaks to the parent-child bond.

“For these (migrant) children, they are with a parent who is risking their life to get their children to safety because they want to keep their child alive.”

– What kind of care do these children need now? –

“First of all, provide them right away with information in their own language about what is going on. Because children who don’t understand will fill in the gaps with their own explanations. They may blame themselves, they may blame the adults they see, they may blame other children, they may hold their parents responsible when it is not their fault. 

“They need to have information about what is happening. They need to be reassured that their parents are okay. It is really critical that they be allowed to have ongoing contact with their parents.”

– And in the future? –

“The good news is with different trauma-focused treatments -– which, by the way, include the parent -– children can recover.

“And the younger the child, the more critical it is to include the parent in these treatments. With these effective treatments, the changes in their brain and bodies as well as their psychological system can be reversed and they can recover.

“When they get back with their parents, everyone is going to think the problem is solved. But the impact is going to remain. The problem is not going to go away. They are going to need treatment over the months and years to come.”  

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