The Effect of Separating Children From Their Parents

The child has lost his lifeline, and often his sense of self.

Posted Jun 15, 2018

There has been a great deal of news coverage about the policy of separating children from their parents at the border. As a child development specialist, I would like to explain the powerful psychological consequences of these separations.

When a child is born, he or she is completely dependent upon the parent (or major caretaker) for survival. The parent feeds the tiny infant when he is hungry, soothes him when he is crying, and the parent’s presence gives the fragile infant a feeling of safety. As the parent is consistently there to care for the child and protect him, the child begins to build trust in the parent and the world. Actually, the developmental goal of the first year of life, is for the child to develop love and trust in others.

The parent’s loving words and support also helps the child to develop a positive self-esteem. “If my parent loves me, I am valuable," the child concludes. Over time, the bond between the parent and child gives the child an inner sense of security, happiness and self-love. As a result, the child can go through life feeling safe, forming satisfying relationships and succeeding in his or her goals.

Studies have shown that if a child suddenly loses a parent, either through death, abandonment, or a prolonged separation, the child experiences intense fear, panic, grief (a combination of sadness and loss), depression, helplessness and hopelessness. The child has lost his lifeline, and often his sense of self. The world, and life, become disorganized and terrifying.  

Unless children are surrounded by loved ones and receive much needed emotional support to work through a parental loss, this traumatic experience can cause children to suffer emotionally throughout life. A child who is consumed by grief may lack the psychic energy to learn, to play, or to engage in life. It is not only young children who feel the safest and most secure when their parents are with them, but older children as well. Even adults feel an emotional dependence upon their parents and can suffer terrible grief at their loss.

Children actually blame themselves for a parent’s disappearance. The child naturally concludes: “I must have done something wrong, otherwise my parent wouldn't have left. I must be bad.” The child feels tremendous rage at the parent for leaving, but since it cannot be expressed to the parent, it becomes a constant ache inside or depression (anger turned against the self) or the child will act out aggressively. A child who suddenly loses a parent finds it hard to trust others in relationships; finds love dangerous; (the person could leave), and feels constant longing for the parent. And there is no one to dry the child’s tears.