How Parents Can Help Their Child When Reunified

Dealing with the emotional repercussions of separation.

Posted Aug 18, 2018

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, used with permission
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, used with permission

The separation of migrant families at the Mexican border will likely have long term traumatic consequences for many asylum seekers and their children. Although some families are back together, 565 children still remain apart from their families, including 24 younger than 5 years old. 

The experience of trauma disrupts one’s sense of self. According to psychoanalyst Ghislaine Boulanger, trauma causes a “collapse of the self.”  The issue for these children and parents is complicated because many of these people were vulnerable from living under difficult conditions to begin with that led them to seek asylum, states Larry M. Rosenberg, President, Section II, Div 39 of the America Psychological Association. Rosenberg goes on to say that, while not all people are traumatized by a given event, the best predictor of who will be traumatized is those who have suffered previous trauma. The circumstances of these divided families are further complicated by the prolonged duration of the separation, in effect since early April. Rosenberg suggests there is the possibility that these children, forcibly separated from their parents, will develop attachments to their current "caregivers" or the officials managing the government shelters, whether these people are kind or abusive. This, in turn, will further confound the development of these children and also problematize their future reunion with their parents. To add to the confusion, the procedures for reuniting children with their parents remain chaotic.

Trauma is a slippery term with multiple meanings. It comes from the Greek word meaning “wound.”  Freud was the first to apply the idea of woundedness to the human psyche, meaning an emotional disturbance. He described trauma as an overwhelming experience beyond the individual’s capacity to take in and assimilate it into one’s personality. The ego is “knocked out,” overcome with a level of anxiety that it is unable to master, resulting in feelings of helplessness and confusion. Every age is affected differently by a separation from family, as is every individual.

With infants and preschoolers, their main developmental task, attachment to the caregiver, is interrupted. Attachment is of a set of ideas that emphasizes an infant’s need for a safe and secure bond with the mother or primary caregiver. According to attachment theory, this emotional bond shapes all relationships in later life. Research into children who have been separated from primary caregivers such as those evacuated from London during WWII shows how this sort of trauma can affect a child’s attachment. British Pediatrician D.W. Winnicott who worked with many children separated from their parents wrote about the boy with a string, a child of seven separated from his mother when she was hospitalized for depression, causing her son enormous anxiety. The boy became intensely preoccupied with a piece of string, which he used to join together objects in the home: tables, chairs, and other furniture. The boy’s preoccupation with the string expressed his relentless denial of absence and emotional disorientation in response to the loss of his mother.

Children who have undergone forced separation may experience emotional disregulation and have trouble modulating their feelings, seemingly responding in ways that appear disproportionate to a given situation. They may express increased irritability, anger or outbursts of temper, or prolonged periods of sadness. A parent can help their child with wide swings of emotion and be a source of soothing by encouraging the child to express their feelings, while listening and modeling calm.

For school-age children, the developmental task of developing a widening social circle and becoming more independent is complicated when faced with this threat to security and family unity that comes with abrupt separation. The child’s sense of basic trust in another is likely shaken. Separation increases what child psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz calls “a hypersensitive fear response’ or an exaggerated sense of impending danger, leading to chronic anxiety. Re-establishing a predictable daily routine will give your child structure and help him or her regain a sense of reliability in their environment.

Teens torn from the family at the same time they are confront with dramatic changes in their bodies and newly acquired sexual yearnings face other challenges. Help teenagers manage feelings around their burgeoning sexuality without shame and support their perceptions of a healthy body image and respect for appropriate interpersonal boundaries. The family separation crisis makes children of all ages vulnerable to abuse. Charges of sexual abuse at government-contracted shelters were made recently against two workers. Listen for cues or signs of depression or physical boundary violations that your child may have experienced.

A parent can help their child process the confusion, fear, and distress by listening empathetically. Those who suffer traumatic experience often have a sense of “did that really happen?” They have a hard time believing the experience they have endured. A parent can help their child come to terms with the reality of separation by being validating the legitimacy of their emotional experience whatever it was.

Trauma also jumbles one's sense of time. Memories of a traumatic experience are fragmentary, only recalled in pieces or maybe not at all—just as a hazy sense of unknown loss. One disassociates or cuts off mentally from recollection of the experience. Boulanger explains it this way: “gaps in the story reflect the psyche's reluctance to reenter territory that caused the collapse of the self.” A child likely will have have trouble finding the words to tell about his or her experience of separation.

Chicano poet Francisco Alacón grew up in both the United States and Mexico, and wrote poetry shaped by the experience of both cultures.  He conveys how difficult feelings can confound words or, at times, be transmitted through them and help with the healing process. In a few stanzas from “Words are Birds,” he writes :

some words



they're difficult

to translate

and others

build nests

have chicks

warm them

feed them

Parents can help their child gradually build a "nest" for their experience of separation. This nest can take many forms. A child often reenacts the of experience of trauma through play or through other symbolic means, by the way they handle a toy or other familiar object. According to Boulanger, imagination is important if one is bearing witness to a trauma with which one has no familiarity or internal representation within their own past experience. Imagination helps the witness “be there” in the hurtful experience and humanize it. Parents: listen and keep listening while continuing to reassure your child of your love. Encourage your child to try to speak their feelings or even write them down. I refer to a short poem in its entirety by Alacón: “A Blank White Page” 

is a meadow 

after a snowfall 

that a poem hopes to cross

Below, page 1 of a brochure for immigrant parents being reunited with their children, a collaboration between members of Section II and Section V of the American Psychological Association, PsiAN, with support from Child First. This resource is available also in Spanish under News and Publications at or the Psychotherapy Action Network

APA, used with permission
Source: APA, used with permission