Separated Migrant Children Face Lasting Psychological Trauma

A Honduran two-year-old cries as her mother is searched near the U.S.-Mexico border by U.S. Border Patrol agents on June 12, 2018. They were detained after rafting across the Rio Grande from Mexico. (Image credit: John Moore/Getty)

Doctors and researchers alike are warning that a great deal of psychological harm can occur when young children are separated from their parents and denied comforting hugs from caregivers.

The outcry from pediatric experts comes after several weeks of the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy, which has resulted in the separation of around 2,000 migrant children from their parents between April 19 and May 31, according to a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. [5 Ways to Foster Self-Compassion in Your Child]

On Wednesday (June 20), President Trump signed an executive order ending the policy of child separations, which will instead lead to detaining asylum seekers together as a family (unless they find a reason that detaining a child with his or her family will pose a risk to that child). This comes after many statements issued opposing this practice of separating families, and stories written about the horrors it has inflicted on children.

Even so, the thousands who were already separated from their families may already have lasting impacts from the trauma.

Recently, Dr. Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), visited such a center in Texas, where young children, ages 12 and under, were held. "I was told that you couldn't comfort or hold a crying child," Kraft told "CBS This Morning." And according to NPR, a shelter employee in Arizona supposedly quit after being told to separate hugging siblings.

So, how can this absence of physical touch — hugs, hand-holding, comforting — affect children?

Not being physically held can raise stress hormones in infants, according to Lori Evans, an assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. "A lot of what we know about this is from kids raised in orphanages," she said.

"If they're very young and left without touch for a while, they have a higher stress level," she said. The levels of a stress hormone — like cortisol — remain higher than normal, even after children are brought back to their family, she added. Other hormones, like oxytocin and vasopressin, which are really important for emotional and social bonding, are often lower in infants who don't experience physical touch, like hugs from caregivers, according to Evans.

The same may hold true for older children, though not much research has focused on this age group with respect to physical comfort. "When you see little kids, they are always asking for hugs; they're hugging one another; they're sitting on laps," she said. [25 Scientific Tips For Raising Happy (& Healthy) Kids]

Touch is also important in terms of "bonding" with caregivers early in life and then growing up "to have normal and good relationships with other people," said Dr. Ranna Parekh, a child psychiatrist and the director of the Division of Diversity and Health Equity at the American Psychiatric Association.

The way this zero-tolerance policy was being carried out not only tore these children from the physical comfort of their parents' arms, but also left them feeling alone in the world, she said. "These are kids who had not only traumatic separation, but then they don't have access to something that would relieve that stress, which is touch [from] a caregiver," Parekh said. " I would think a caregiver [at the detention facilities] who's experienced at knowing how to provide touch is much better than having no one." (Even so, according to news accounts, those caregivers were forbidden from comforting the detained children.)

The Shadow of Trauma on the Brain

Doctors and psychologists agree that this traumatic situation can have long-lasting psychological effects.

"Most mental, emotional and behavioral disorders have their roots in childhood and adolescence … and childhood trauma has emerged as a strong risk factor for later suicidal behavior," according to a statement released today (June 20) by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

"Parents' impact on their children's well-being may never be greater than during the earliest years of life, when a child's brain is developing rapidly and when nearly all of her or his experiences are shaped by parents and the family environment," the statement read.

"I would say, at the very least, many of them are at high risk of acute stress disorder, which is something that happens within a month of time and can lead to essentially a potential precursor to PTSD," Parekh added.

As adults who have experienced both positive and negative aspects of life, we know that "the world is not so black and white, we can understand gray a little bit," she said. But these are children who haven't yet experienced life, and what these traumatic separations are telling them is that the "world is not a safe place to be in."

This could leave them with a more permanent image of what the world is like — an image "that will incredibly impact their relationships moving forward with others and the world around them," she added.

Originally published on Live Science.

Yasemin Saplakoglu
Staff Writer

Yasemin is a staff writer at Live Science, covering health, neuroscience and biology. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Science and the San Jose Mercury News. She has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Connecticut and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.