The Effects of Separating Children from Their Parents
What science says about the detrimental effects of separating families.
Posted Jul 05, 2018
This weekend, I attended the 40th annual meeting of the International Congress on Infant Studies in Philadelphia, where experts in the field of infant and child development came together to exchange ideas about how children develop, and best practices for promoting their health and well-being. While we were at the conference, hundreds of people came together in almost 600 different locations across the country to participate in the March to Keep Families Together, some right outside our window in Philly. In fact, several of our conference members left the talks to join the march. The protests were organized in response to the Trump administration’s recent policy requiring the prosecution of all immigrants who illegally cross the border, resulting in over 2000 children being separated from their parents indefinitely. Although the policy has now been reversed, many of these children have yet to be reunited with their families.
Since the policy was enforced, there have been many articles published, in many places, written by many people who oppose the practice of separating children from their families. Several of these articles have been written by the very people who attend conferences like this one, namely because the negative consequences of separating children from their parents are very well documented by developmental scientists. Despite the fact that I’m a little late in joining the conversation, and there have already been many articles published on this topic, as someone who studies child development and writes a blog aimed at translating developmental research for parents, I felt an obligation to provide a short summary on why separating children from their families is so harmful. Here it is.
First and foremost, separating children from their parents will most certainly cause distress. When we’re distressed, our brains release stress hormones into our bodies, one of the most well-studied of which is called cortisol. Brief or mild periods of stress—perhaps caused by routine vaccinations or a temper tantrum—are normal and don’t generally have long-term negative consequences for the child. Moderate stress responses—from a death in the family, or parents divorcing—are sometimes called “tolerable” stressors; these stress responses don’t necessarily cause long-term harm to a child if they are somehow lessened or soothed by the presence of a parent. The most dangerous kind of stress—called “toxic stress”—can result from a prolonged period of distress without help from a loved one. This kind of stress can cause problems for the development of a child’s brain, and can have serious long-term behavioral consequences, possibly disrupting a child’s ability to regulate their emotions and cope with future stress. It could even be detrimental to learning (Shonkoff, Garner, et al., 2011).
Separating a child from their parents for a long period of time likely causes stress that is more than just brief or minor. Even if it causes only moderate, or “tolerable” stress, removing children from their parents also removes their primary mechanism for coping—their parents. The way that children often cope and recover from some of the more serious forms of stress is by having a responsive parent nearby. When children are crying or upset, mothers usually hug them as a form of soothing. It turns out that hugs or any form of touch can reduce stress hormones like cortisol in the body (Feldman, Singer, & Zagoory, 2010) and even lower heart rate (Ludington & Hosseini, 2005). Further, research has shown that children who receive touch therapy after having experienced post-traumatic stress are happier, less anxious, and have lower cortisol levels than children who do not get touch therapy (Field, Seligman, Scafidi, & Schanberg, 1996). The point is that physical comfort from mom is important in reducing children’s distress.
On top of that, mothers don’t even have to hug their children to effectively reduce their stress responses—a mom’s presence might be enough to do the trick. The part of the brain that is most active when we are afraid—the amygdala—isn’t as active in children when their mothers are present as when they are absent (Gee et al., 2014). Further, there is evidence that the amygdala is activated more quickly and more easily in children who are in foster care—children who don’t have a mother in close proximity—than children who are not (Gee et al., 2013). This research suggests that a mother’s presence can affect a child’s brain, protecting it from the negative effects of fear or stress.
The jist here is that taking children away from their parents could not only cause potentially serious forms of stress, but it also takes away children’s primary method of coping with that stress—the presence and comfort of their mothers and fathers. Since this is only a recent policy, we don’t yet know the exact consequences of the separation for these children. But based on everything we know about child development from decades and decades of research, the result won’t be good. We do know that in previous studies of children in institutionalized care, the longer and the younger these children are institutionalized, the worse the effects (Nelson et al. 2007). There are still a lot of children who have yet to be reunited with their parents. The clock is ticking.
For more information, here are a couple of pieces by the researchers who have done this work directly, Margaret Sheridan and Charles Nelson, Dylan Gee, and an additional piece that interviews several other important scientists who have done extensive research in this domain. Finally, see the Society for Research in Child Development's official statement on family separation.
Field, T., Seligman, S., Scafidi, F., & Schanberg, S. (1996). Alleviating posttraumatic stress in children following Hurricane Andrew. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 17(1), 37-50.
Feldman, R., Singer, M., & Zagoory, O. (2010). Touch attenuates infants’ physiological reactivity to stress. Developmental science, 13(2), 271-278.
Gee, D. G., Gabard-Durnam, L. J., Flannery, J., Goff, B., Humphreys, K. L., Telzer, E. H., ... & Tottenham, N. (2013). Early developmental emergence of human amygdala–prefrontal connectivity after maternal deprivation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201307893.
Gee, D. G., Gabard-Durnam, L. J., Flannery, J., Goff, B., Humphreys, K. L., Telzer, E. H., ... & Tottenham, N. (2013). Early developmental emergence of human amygdala–prefrontal connectivity after maternal deprivation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201307893.Gee, D. G., Gabard-Durnam, L., Telzer, E. H., Humphreys, K. L., Goff, B., Shapiro, M., ... & Tottenham, N. (2014). Maternal buffering of human amygdala-prefrontal circuitry during childhood but not during adolescence. Psychological science, 25(11), 2067-2078.
Ludington-Hoe, S. M., & Hosseini, R. B. (2005). Skin-to-skin contact analgesia for preterm infant heel stick. AACN clinical issues, 16(3), 373.
Nelson, C. A., Zeanah, C. H., Fox, N. A., Marshall, P. J., Smyke, A. T., & Guthrie, D. (2007). Cognitive recovery in socially deprived young children: The Bucharest Early Intervention Project. Science, 318(5858), 1937-1940.
Shonkoff, J. P., Garner, A. S., Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, & Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care. (2011). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics, peds-2011.