Separating Kids from Families as Psychological Disaster

How familial separation can lead to adverse long-term consequences.

Posted Jun 19, 2018

Vagner-Xaruto / Pixabay
Source: Vagner-Xaruto / Pixabay

You’ve seen the photos and videos in the news. You’ve seen the Facebook posts. A newly implemented policy of the current presidential administration is to separate kids–little kids–from adults at the border. If a family is trying to get into the US illegally, our government is now detaining the parents and separating them from the kids–often putting the kids in cages. Yes, this is really happening. Today. Here.

Some people are claiming that this is an old policy that was put in place by one of the prior administrations and that this is really nothing new. A detailed and in-depth examination of this question by Snopes, which works as a premier investigatory power on such questions, emphatically concluded that such claims are false. In the words of their report, the following claim, “A 'law to separate families' was enacted prior to April 2018, and the federal government is powerless not to enforce it” is unequivocally false.

Importantly, this is not a political post–not by any means. This is a post about human psychology and how it connects with the current state of our world.

Attachment between Child and Caregiver

Going back to the early work of such pioneers as Bowlby (1969) and Harlow and Suomi (1971), it has been clear that the young of various primates and adult caregivers show a broad array of features that primarily function to solidify a bond or attachment between them. Babies cry and parents respond. Parents pick the child up, and the child relaxes and is happy. A mother nurses her infant, and both are deeply at peace. Scents, voices, and facial expressions become stamped into the minds of one another.

Further, they become stressed when they are separated from one another.

This is normal. Humans, like many primates, evolved a broad array of attachment-related behaviors largely because human infants are deeply helpless (or altricial) for an extended amount of time—and such an attachment process helps provide the infant with a secure base by which to develop in a healthy manner.

When Attachment Goes Awry

Given the foundational nature of attachments with adults during development, it is not really surprising that infants who are not provided the opportunity to develop healthy attachments have social and emotional problems later in life. In his famous work on the social development of non-human primates, Harry Harlow discovered that young rhesus monkeys that were separated from their mothers early in life consistently had major problems in their social development, displaying inappropriate emotional and social responses and, ultimately, not being able to bond with other monkeys when given the opportunities later in life.

In a series of studies that I conducted with my former student, Sara Hall (Hall & Geher, 2004; Hall & Geher, 2003), we examined teenagers from across the US who showed signs of “Reactive Attachment Disorder” (RAD)—a condition rooted in a failure to have at least one strong attachment relationship formed with an adult caregiver early in life.

In our first study (Hall & Geher, 2003), we compared kids with RAD with a matched sample of kids without this disorder in terms of several psychological outcome variables. Kids with RAD emerged as having all kinds of problems compared with the kids in the other sample. For instance, the kids with RAD were more likely to:

  • Have social problems.
  • Have issues with delinquency.
  • Have attentional problems.
  • Have “thought problems.”
  • Be withdrawn.

In a second study that specifically focused on the emotional outcomes of a separate group of RAD kids with another matched sample, we obtained similar results. Kids with RAD, compared with a matched sample, emerged as having all kinds of emotional problems, including:

In short, kids who are separated from adult caregivers in substantial ways early in life are at risk for a broad array of psychological problems later in life.

Parent/Child Separation and PTSD

Given how ubiquitous the effects of separation between child and caregiver are in terms of psychological development, it should not come as a surprise that such separations are stressful to children. Given this fact, it is little wonder that significant separations early in life can actually be traumatizing to children, with separation from an attachment figure being a major factor associated with the onset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in children (see Fletcher, 1996). And PTSD famously leads to all kinds of adverse outcomes in life.

Bottom Line

By many reports, the United States is currently engaging in a practice of separating children from adult caregivers when detaining adults at the border. From the standpoint of the behavioral sciences, this practice is inhumane. Such separations have the capacity to lead to a broad array of long-lasting adverse effects for those kids. Such separations can lead to problems with emotional, cognitive, and social functioning. Such separations can serve as traumatic incidents, affecting those kids in adverse ways for years.

Perhaps it is time to use the mountain of research in the behavioral sciences to help benefit people and to help shape relatively humane policies and procedures. It seems that the current situation, in which little kids are being separated from their families and are being put into cages, right here in the United States of America, might be a good place to start.


Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Fletcher K. E. (1996). Childhood Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Hall, S.E., & Geher, G. (2004). The Measurement of Emotional Intelligence in Children: The Case of Reactive Attachment Disorder. In G. Geher (Ed.), Measuring Emotional Intelligence. New York: Nova Science Publishing.

Harlow, H.F., & Suomi, S. J. (1971). Social Recovery by Isolation-Reared Monkeys, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America,  68,1534-1538.

Hubbard, S.E.K., & Geher, G. (2003). Patterns of behavior in children with reactive attachment disorder. Journal of Psychology, 137, 145-162.