Forcibly separating children from their families can have lifelong psychological impacts and “unlimited” consequences on family dynamics and society, experts on children’s health and wellness say.
The Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, in which migrant children and their parents are separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, has been widely criticized over the last two weeks. The U.S. federal government has used the policy to separate more than 2,300 migrant families, according to the Associated Press.
On Monday, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency said it effectively halted the practice, refusing to send new cases to prosecution. On Tuesday, a U.S. federal judge ruled migrant families that have been separated at the U.S.-Mexico border must be reunited within 14 to 30 days.
The policy received widespread condemnation from everyone from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the United Nations, along with healthcare professionals. The American Academy of Pediatrics called it “child abuse,” and the Canadian Pediatric Society has said such policies can have “immediate and lasting harm” on children.
“We cannot at the point really see the impact of what’s happening on the Mexican-American border, but we can anticipate based on our observations in working with families who have been separated in other circumstances,” says Véronique Harvey, a psychotherapist with Quebec’s RIVO, an acronym which roughly translates as Network for Victims of Organized Violence.
The organization is a group of therapists who work with immigrant and refugee adults and children now in Canada who were subjected to persecution on the basis of their identity or government violence in other countries.
“No matter what the circumstances [of separation] are, the psychological, emotional and developmental impact is traumatic,” Harvey says. “Even with children who are currently with their parents, who have been reunited, we see tremendous challenges.”
“THE WHOLE WORLD COME UNDONE”
These types of situations can cause immediate and long-term mental health impacts on children and their families, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and depression, Harvey says. Canadian pediatrician Mahli Brindamour says forcible separation from parents can also lead to physical health issues such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
Harvey says this all stems from the relationship between parent and child being damaged. She says parents help their children understand the world by providing validation of self and safety through food, love, routine and boundaries. This contributes to and fosters a child’s ability to interact with others, she says, and if that relationship is removed, it can have immediate impacts on the child’s self-esteem, and may even prevent their entire sense of self from developing.
“[Children’s] perception of the world is based – it begins and it ends – on their relationship with their parents,” Harvey says. “So children who have been separated from their parents will have their whole world come undone.”
Kevin Pottie, founding director of the Immigrant Health Clinic and an expert on immigrant and refugee health, agrees.
“When you have family cohesion, which means you have a family unit that you trust and that you can get information from, this can help to understand this complex world,” Pottie says. “[If you don’t have this,] identity will start to become very mixed up and change. Self-esteem becomes linked to depression, trauma, trauma-related illness, as well as potentially many other aspects of your life.”
Pottie points out child welfare systems in Canada do not like to separate children from their parents, unless it is a last resort because there is something wrong with the family or the child’s safety is at risk.
EROSION OF TRUST AND SENSE OF SELF
Harvey says children who are forcibly separated from their parents often do not understand why their parent has had to leave. She says if a parent is unable to properly explain why they are going – a difficult if not impossible feat in itself depending on the circumstances – the child will create a narrative in their head to fill the gap in understanding. Harvey says this leads to the child blaming themselves for their parent leaving, and an eventual impairment in the child’s interactions with others.
“They will blame themselves for being abandoned, even though it was not the parent’s intention,” she says. “It’s often measured as, ‘My parents don’t love me. I cannot trust them anymore. They must have done this because I’m a bad child.’”
This can permanently change the dynamic between parent and child because it erodes trust, leading to huge problems for families who are eventually reunited, Harvey says.
She says if a child feels they can no longer trust their parent, this can essentially lead the child to being put in a state of hyper-vigilance, in which they are always on the look out for further threats, never feeling safe. This trauma can be compounded based on additional factors such as violence a family may have fled that led them to turn to another country, and how the child was treated when they were separated from their parents.
“NOT JUST A STUFFED ANIMAL”
Under Trump’s policy, children who taken from their parents were held in detention centres run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. They were being kept in cages with the lights on 24 hours a day. Not only did they not have access to their parents, but their toys were also taken away from them. U.S. Customs and Border Protection policy was to remove anything considered “nonessential and potentially lethal” from undocumented immigrants, including children. Even their shoelaces were confiscated.
Harvey says taking away a child’s toy in such a way can cause even more psychological damage.
“A teddy bear for a child is not just a stuffed animal,” she says. “It’s more than that. It’s a relationship.”
Harvey says children’s toys and stuffed animals represent “transitional objects” that help children navigate the world when their parents are not around and represent love, care, attachment and their entire relationship, she says.
“When you take a teddy bear from the child, you’ve cut the bond between the child and parent even further, even deeper,” Harvey says. “If the teddy bear is no longer there, what is left?”
Harvey says this can create problems with attachment, not just between parent and child, but between the child and their home, community, and society at large.
Even for families who are eventually reunited, this can have massive consequences, she says. Harvey points out that not only do these families have to repair a relationships that were damaged, but they also face the difficulties of having to integrate themselves into a new country.
Harvey says she’s seen parents who have been experiencing their own trauma issues become overwhelmed and head to the emergency room when having a panic attack or experiencing symptoms that eventually see them diagnosed with general anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, among other things. Families are often referred to her because children are identified by teachers and school administrators as having “behavioral problems” or learning disabilities, which mental health professionals sometimes end up diagnosing as trauma or trauma-related illnesses.
“If anything in our institutions, the screening for trauma is very poor,” she says. “They don’t know how to intervene with these individuals because they’re not equipped to do that.”
Pottie, who has worked with immigrants and refugee children for 25 years in Canada and abroad, says there are implications in terms of bullying children may face at school as well.
A 2015 study Pottie contributed to in collaboration with the University of Ottawa, the Canadian Collaboration for Immigrant and Refugee Health and the Canadian Institute of Child Health found that immigrant youth who are first generation experience higher rates of bullying and aggression from their peers than third generation and native-born youth, particularly if they do not speak the primary language of their new country. He says one of the study’s key findings was children experience lower levels of aggression and bullying from peers when there is cohesion in their home.
“What the child has, and this is worldwide, we know this, they have this family unit, where that’s their world,” Pottie says. “So when we’re worried about trauma, when we disrupt that world, that world is more important than the outside world. The outside world can certainly bring bullying in schools, but when you have a cohesive family at home, that mitigates against any of the effects of that negative bullying.”
Essentially, these types of circumstances teach children they cannot be attached to anything, be it family, peers, home, or even society, Harvey says.
“What kind of adults will these children be?” she asks. “The consequences are just unlimited.”