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Judith L. Herman M.D.

Separation from Parents Is Harmful to Children

It's beyond dispute. Separation from parents is traumatic to kids.

It has come to this: Child abuse is now an official policy of the U.S. federal government. I am speaking about the immigration policy known as Zero Tolerance.

Under Zero Tolerance, instituted in May 2018, families presenting at the border without proper papers, including those following established protocol to seek asylum, are charged as criminals. The parents are detained, and because their children cannot legally be imprisoned with them, they are separated from their parents and entrusted to the tender mercies of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). These are children as young as toddlers, literally taken from their parents by force.

The government assures us that there is no intent to harm these children. They are merely the collateral damage of Zero Tolerance. How many children? What has happened to them? Will they ever see their parents again? No one knows for sure. ORR does not give out information about the numbers or whereabouts of these children.

Source: PrazisImages/Shutterstock

Whether or not harm is intended, it is beyond dispute that separation from parents and caregivers is traumatic to children. Numerous studies, beginning with Anna Freud’s observations of children separated from their parents during the London Blitz, attest to the long-term harms of separation. Most recently, the well-known ACES survey, conducted jointly by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente, documented the consequences to both physical and mental health of what they named adverse childhood experiences. Along with physical and sexual abuse, any prolonged separation from a parent in childhood–whether because the parent was physically or mentally ill, or because the parent was incarcerated–was powerfully related to many of the ten leading causes of death: heart, lung, and liver disease, as well as alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide attempts.1

When hurt or frightened, children cry for their parents. The cry of a frightened child has a powerful effect on mothers and other caretakers, who ordinarily respond by enveloping the child in their arms. When the child’s separation cry is not answered, fear magnifies into terror. This is the attachment system, evolved for human survival, first described by John Bowlby,2 and since confirmed by contemporary investigators. We are all hard-wired to seek the embrace of familiar caretakers in response to danger. The reciprocal response of caretakers, to comfort a frightened child, is equally hard-wired, as most parents can attest. On the foundation of secure attachment is built our ability to form trusting relationships and our basic sense of security in the world.

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association have condemned this policy. According to a statement by Altha Stewart, M.D., President of the American Psychiatric Association, “Children depend on their parents for safety and support. Any forced separation is highly stressful for children and can cause lifelong trauma, as well as an increased risk of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The United Nations human rights office has called for an immediate halt to the practice of separating children from migrant families, calling it a “serious violation of the rights of the child.” (The United States is the only country in the world that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.)

Zero Tolerance is a policy that will harm its perpetrators as well as its victims. This is a classic example of what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton famously called an “atrocity-producing situation.”3 Members of the border patrol who tear crying children from the arms of their parents may themselves suffer lasting consequences. The rationalization of “following orders” will not help. Long-term follow-up studies of Vietnam War veterans find that some of the most severe and persistent cases of posttraumatic stress disorder occur among soldiers who harmed civilians or prisoners.4 Children taken from their parents are both civilians and prisoners.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court, calling for an immediate halt to this policy and for the reunification of families. Mental health professionals, who understand the harms inflicted by separating children from their families, should similarly call for an immediate end to the policy of Zero Tolerance.


1 Felitti, VJ, Anda RF, Nordenberg D, Williamson DF, Spitz AM, et. al. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14: 245-258.

2 Bowlby, J (1969): Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
3 Lifton, RJ (1973): Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans: Neither Victims nor Executioners. NY: Simon & Schuster.

4 Dohrenwend BP, Yager TJ, Wall MM, & Adams BG (2013): The roles of combat exposure, personal vulnerability, and involvement in harm to civilians or prisoners in Vietnam War −related posttraumatic stress disorder. Clinical Psychological Science published online 15 February 2013
DOI: 10.1177/2167702612469355


About the Author

Judith L. Herman, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.