Children & Youth

The Trauma of Family Separation

Alan Sroufe, Professor Emeritus of Child Psychology at the University of Minnesota, describes the necessary bond between parent and child this way (as cited in Divecha, 2017):

               Attachment is a relationship in the service of a baby’s emotion regulation and exploration.

                It is the deep, abiding confidence a baby has in the availability and responsiveness of the


This quote helps us understand why so many of us are confused, distressed, and outraged by the stories and images that have emerged from the recent (now reversed) policy of separating children from their families as they attempted to cross the southern U.S. border. Why are we collectively having such a visceral reaction? Perhaps it’s because we instinctively know how traumatic it is for children (as well as their parents and family members) to be deprived of the necessary and natural bond that serves as the template for our relationships.

Humans are social beings. We are dependent on our caregivers for longer than any other creature on earth; our parents and families must provide for our every need as we grow and develop, and complete independence is a process many years in the making. This is the biological “trade-off” that humans make for evolving highly complex brains that are capable of communication, reasoning, and social interaction. As a result, these same highly complex brains are sensitive to disruptions in that necessary attachment period.

In his book, A SECURE BASE: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development, British Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, and Psychiatrist John Bowlby describes one of the necessary conditions for a secure relationship between parent and child as “attaining or maintaining proximity” to an attachment figure (26).[2] The younger the child, the more pressing the necessity for physical and emotional closeness. It is within these attachment relationships that we form the blueprint for our sense of self, our sense of others (how the world works), and for our understanding of how relationships work. Secure attachment leads to the beliefs that the world is a safe, nurturing, predictable place where we are worthy of getting our needs met and can engage in trusting relationships. In their book, Intelligent Kindness: Reforming the Culture of Healthcare, John Ballat and Penelope Campling explain how, “Threats to felt security . . . include [a caregiver’s] prolonged absence, communication breakdown, emotional unavailability, [and] signs of rejection or abandonment (59).[3]

Many people around the world have been asking the following questions in light of these family separations:

  • How are the children impacted by being forcibly removed from the people who are meant to protect and love them and provide for their needs?
  • In what ways are the children affected by being placed in mass facilities to be cared for by strangers with very little, if any understanding of what’s happening?

There are acute and understandable reactions for children thrust into these situations, including crying, screaming, problems with sleep or eating, or perhaps even developmental setbacks like bedwetting. These reactions are examples of children trying to cope with excessive uncertainty, stress, fear, and trauma. For children, there is also a crucial component missing, which normally serves to modulate and regulate their stress response: a predictable, loving, and responsive caregiver. Children experience what many refer to as toxic stress when they are overwhelmed by the physiological consequences of distress and fear with no foreseeable pathway of modulating that stress. The longer the situation persists, the more cumulative the impact. Many medical professionals have spoken out about the potential long-term impacts of these separations, and the subsequent disruption of hormones and brain development.  These include:

  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Lack of trust in relationships
  • Impaired sense of self
  • Disruption of developmental milestones
  • Anxiety, depression, and other stress reactions

Resilience is the capacity for positive adaptation despite challenging circumstances. In the wake of this situation, some people have spoken about the innate resilience of children, but we hope that children will be able to return to their previous level of functioning once they’re back in the presence of their caregivers. It also must not be forgotten that these situations are also extremely distressing for the family members, who may feel as if they have not been able to protect and care for their children and for whom the separation from their child has caused emotional and psychological pain and suffering.

The truth is, for children, resilience requires the presence of caring, responsive adults who provide for their needs. Children are like sprouting seeds. No matter what the potential is within that seed, good soil, adequate water supply, and plentiful sun are still needed for that seed to continue to grow. We have collectively recognized and responded to the needs of these children and families, and we can only hope that this concern and compassion will continue for all children moving into the future. This collective caregiving for all children must continue, recognizing the importance of ensuring that all children are securely attached to their families.

[1] Divecha, Diana. (2017, April 3). What is a secure attachment? And why doesn’t ‘attachment parenting’ get you there?” [Web log post]. Retrieved from HTTP://WWW.DEVELOPMENTALSCIENCE.COM/BLOG/2017/3/31/WHAT-IS-A-SECURE-ATTACHMENTAND-WHY-DOESNT-ATTACHMENT-PARENTING-GET-YOU-THERE.
[2] Bowlby, J. (1988). A SECURE BASE: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. USA: Basic Books.
[3] Ballatt, J., & Campling, P. (2011). Intelligent kindness: Reforming the culture of healthcare. London: RCPsych Publications.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Trish Harper

MSW, RSW – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Trish is a co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling Insights – Practical Strategies for Helping Others with Anxiety, Trauma, Grief, and More. This book is available on our website.

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