A "Triple Whammy" at the Border

Why it is urgent to reunite immigrant children with their parents now.

Posted Jul 06, 2018

The events at America's southern border have galvanized the attention of the world. The sights and anguished sounds of young children crying at being separated from their families have left an indelible mark. While most immediate concern is over reuniting these children with their parents, some experts are asking about the long-term effects of such intense trauma.

The scientific consensus is that separating kids from their parents is detrimental to their physical and mental health. But not often explored in depth are three serious psychological issues that research suggests are likely to affect these children. Each of these alone puts a young child in jeopardy; in combination they risk permanent damage.

These young children experience both separation from their parents, a separation they are powerless to avoid, and the isolation of being held in a uncaring environment with adults who are not even allowed to comfort them. This scenario sets up what we call a triple whammy of harm.

The first whammy: Learned helplessness.

The term was first coined by psychologist Martin Seligman in 1965 to describe a two-part experiment in which dogs were exposed to mild electric shocks that they could either avoid or not avoid. Dogs who—in the first part of the experiment—could not avoid the shocks, gave up in the second part of the experiment, when they could easily avoid the shocks. The dogs had learned to be helpless. Seligman described this condition as not trying to get out of a negative situation because the past has taught you that you are helpless.

Seligman's original research on dogs has been extended to people. In his words, “We have produced learned helplessness in humans.” And today, the American government is doing just that.

At the US-Mexico border, young, separated children are learning that none of their efforts—crying, calling for their parents—has any effect. No one comforts them, their parents do not come; despite their efforts, their situation remains the same.

This process, wrote Seligman, “debilitates performance well beyond the condition under which helplessness is first trained.” In other words, the sense of futility the kids experience may stay with them for a long time, setting up the belief that there is nothing they can do to change bad situations.

A considerable body of research concludes that learned helplessness can lead to depression, anxiety, childhood failures, lack of motivation, and in extreme cases, sudden death.

The second whammy: Lack of attachment.

More than 50 years ago, British psychologist John Bowlby  observed the reactions of young children separated from their parents during a stay in the hospital. His research became the cornerstone of the theory of attachment, the connection between infant and caregiver that fundamentally shapes a child’s social world.

Children who do not form these bonds early on can suffer serious psychological harm. Research from studies of children warehoused in orphanages with limited personnel tells the tale. Based on research conducted on children raised in orphanages throughout Eastern Europe and China, Columbia University psychology professor Nim Tottenham told the Los Angeles Times, “On average, what we see is that this early experience seems to be a major risk factor for mental health problems later on in life.”  

In adolescence, these children begin to suffer from problems with impulse control, unruly behavior, attention problems and substance abuse at significantly higher rates than those of kids from intact households. “This effect lasts years,” Tottenham said. Many Americans who adopted children from poorly run orphanages in Romania found that their kids suffered from these symptoms.   

News reports from the border often focus on the lack of human contact and comfort these children, some as young as 4, receive. Who is in charge of these needy children? Are the caretakers trained and competent to attend the needs of these deeply traumatized infants and toddlers? According to numerous accounts, the answer is NO. Amazingly, the adults in charge are not often not  permitted to touch children.  

When informed of the no-touch rule while visiting a shelter run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that "the family-separation policy is nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse.”

According to NBC news, the welfare of these children “is being overseen by a small division of the Department of Health and Human Services—the Office of Refugee Resettlement—which has little experience or expertise in handling very young children.”

The Atlantic reported that one former worker at a Tucson, Arizona, shelter, claimed that even siblings are prevented from hugging one another. The worker decided  to quit when he was asked to inform two siblings, ages 6 and 10, that they couldn’t hug each other. “They called me over the radio. And they wanted to translate to these kids that the rule of the shelter is that they are not allowed to hug. And these are kids that had just been separated from their mom—basically just huddling and hugging each other in a desperate attempt to remain together.”

Even neglect of basic and critical sanitary conditions is rampant. CNN reported that one mother who was reunited with her child said that the child’s diaper had not been changed in days.

The Third Whammy: Mistrust over Trust.

Eric Erikson, the renowned psychoanalyst, wrote about a child’s first “crisis,” which he named, Trust vs. Mistrust. This pivotal stage in an infant’s life occurs between birth and approximately 18 months of age. According to Erikson, this stage of development is the most critical in a child’s life, because it shapes his or her view of the world, as well as their personalities.

On our southern border, it is important to note, many of the separated children were at this tender age when they were separated. Infants were torn away from their mothers and fathers and shipped around the country with little regard for the psychological consequences. Erikson says that babies who do not develop bonds of trust with their caregivers may not be able, as they grow, to develop a hopeful view of the world or to sustain trusting relationships with others in their later years.

Perhaps the damages these immigrant children have suffered can be mitigated if they are quickly reunited with their parents and not subjected to long-term separation. But news reports say that the administration had no real plans to reunite these families, that children are scattered across the country, and that data on who and where they are is still incomplete and disorganized.

The Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy may have created serious lifelong challenges for a generation of innocent children. If our government is unable to return these children to their parents in short order, a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions will be the result.