Trauma at the Border: When a Hard Line Becomes a Red Line

Every day counts.

Posted Jun 25, 2018

Photo by Roi Dimor on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Roi Dimor on Unsplash

The practice of separating children from their parents at the U.S./Mexico border has lit up social media and the news. What’s reported is hard to stomach, but the reality for these separated children is much worse. An executive action to stop these separations does not walk back the trauma these separated children have experienced, nor will it undo the pain they are experiencing right now. And that level of trauma is not something that can be undone, even if the complicated task of reconnecting these children with their parents is achieved.

If politicians wanted to find the most painful way of punishing families — if that was truly the goal — then congratulations, you’ve succeeded. In fact, when societies go after each other’s children they have crossed a line drawn by civilization. Terrorists and mass shooters target schools for a reason, to elicit horror by harming our children. To see the U.S. employing these same tactics puts us in terrible company. If the goal is to stem the flow of people wanting to enter the U.S., this is certainly a method that has a good chance of working, because it goes to the core of every parent’s and every child’s most basic existential anxiety. Few parents want to come to the U.S. if it means that they will lose their children. But that is exactly why it’s so despicable.

This is especially so because we possess very solid research evidence showing that separating children from their parents and putting them in environments without a primary caretaker has lifelong effects. No one can claim ignorance because these findings have been replicated hundreds of times and are fully available to any policymaker and politician. Since Anna Freud’s studies in London when children were separated from their parents to protect them from the Nazi bombings, we know that it is essential for children to stay with their parents. And if anyone has any doubt, go on YouTube and watch some of the videos inspired by John Bowlby’s work, where children are separated from their families during hospitalizations. It was this work that led to children not being left by their parents while they are in the hospital.

It is a positive sign that so many religious leaders who are pro-family have spoken up. But it is very disconcerting that so many people that stand for families are willing to support these punitive actions that cause such harm to fundamental security in human development. Here is a short list of some of the many consequences of these separations that can impact children throughout their lives: higher probability for addiction issuesdepressionfailing romantic relationships, and early death. Obviously, there is not a one-to-one correlation where you can say the children experiencing this separation now will experience these hardships, but the probability is exceedingly high and we need to intervene fast so these problems don’t become chronic.

Paradoxically, the same policymakers inflicting this harm are often interested in mental health and in supporting mental health initiatives that should reduce school shootings, drug addictions, opioid addictions, and suicide. It is essential to connect the dots between the harm done to children separated at our borders and the likelihood that this trauma will exacerbate the very problems policymakers want to prevent. If we don’t get this right fast, we’ll all pay the price because we are creating mental disorders that impact our whole community. It is also important to consider that in most conflicts across the world when one group attacks another group’s children it can lead to a sinister escalation that can harm all children. We cannot minimize the serious harm these actions have caused. It is good that the outcry has brought people to their senses. But that might be only for a few moments. Protecting children is a long-term local, national, and global effort. This is the red line, let’s be vigilant to not get close to it again on our American borders.