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Migrant Families and Attachment

Attachment theory explains the aftermath of family separations.

In their article, “Migrant Families Reunite Uneasily as Rules Change,” Miriam Jordan, Katie Benner, Ron Nixon and Caitlin Dickerson (NYT, July 11, 2018) report that after months of separation from their young children, when the reunions finally happened in Phoenix, the mothers were met with rejection. As heartbreaking as this is, it is not surprising. Infant research that began in the 1950’s proved the negative impact when young children are separated from their parents.

Rene Spitz compared a group of infants raised in isolated hospital cribs with those raised in a prison by their incarcerated mothers. Thirty-seven percent of the infants kept in the bleak hospital ward died, but there were no deaths at all among the infants raised in the prison. The incarcerated babies grew more quickly, were larger, and did better in every way Spitz could measure. The orphans who managed to survive the hospital, in contrast, were scrawny and showed obvious psychological, cognitive, and behavioral problems. Spitz proved that serious mental health and behavioral problems could result from not having at least one loving parent devoted to a particular child.

Source: Raineer/unsplash

Harry Harlow continued the work of Spitz by devising an experiment with monkeys that proved the importance of physical contact and John Bowlby pointed out that a disruption in the mother-child bond due to physical separation results in anxiety, grief and depression. Mary Ainsworth further developed many of the ideas set forth by Bowlby in her studies. She identified the existence of what she calls "attachment behavior," examples of behavior that are demonstrated by insecure children in hopes of establishing or re-establishing an attachment to a presently absent caregiver.

All the research on mother-child attachment over the last 70 years old proves the deleterious consequences of parent-child separation. Yet, President Trump instituted a policy of separating parents and children at the Mexican border without regard to the lasting effects it would have on the families—particularly the children.

The mothers in Phoenix feel their children are rejecting them when they are unresponsive to them upon their reunion. The reality is that the child has been traumatized and their secure attachment to the parent has been undone. What was once a secure attachment has been transformed into an insecure one and the child who seems to be ignoring his mother has developed an avoidant mode of attachment as an adaptation to the stress of not being able to understand being abandoned by his mother. The child cannot distinguish the reasons why his mother left him; he only knows she deserted him.

What will help these parents and children revive their attachment? Unfortunately, the damage that has been done to these families cannot be undone. Both the children and their parents have been traumatized. Many of the parents are expecting to be greeted with open arms by their children and are not prepared for the anger and depression that the children will no doubt display at some point. After all, parents might think, they did not let their children go voluntarily. At best, the parents would benefit greatly from intensive counseling about what to expect and how to revive the parent-child bond that was so violently ripped asunder. But an administration that gave no thought to the effects of their policy is not likely to give thought to how to help the families they tried to destroy.