The Mental Health Effects of Parent-Child Separation

Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in two speeches that if an illegal migrant brings a child across the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation, “we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”  

Over 2,000 children have separated from their guardians. These families include those who are legally seeking asylum and those who are illegally crossing the border.

As a result of public criticism, President Trump has signed an executive order that may stop the practice of separating immigrants from the children. The rule has said, “ It is also the policy of this Administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.

The downfall with the order is that it has failed to reunite children who have already taken from their parents.

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have argued that separating undocumented parents and children–as a tactic to deter migrant parents from crossing the border–as inhumane. Not only is it inhumane, but information from developmental neuroscience suggests that it may also be torture.

The Effects of Parent-Child Separation

Children who arrived at the U.S. border are already vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Not only are they escaping violence and persecution, but they also experience hunger, illness, and threats of physical harm along their perilous journey. By the time these migrant children arrived at the U.S. border, they already have faced difficult events, and it increases the likelihood that they will be traumatized by parental separation.  

 Many studies show that being close to parents can protect children against feelings of stress and threat. While children can adjust whoever parents them–biological or adopted parents, other family members or nonfamily members–they will suffer severely if no one takes care of them.

There is research that shows consequences of children torn from their caregivers.  One instance is that children raised in institutional orphanages show stunted growth, cognitive impairments, an increase in anxiety, and stress-related health problems that often endure even after adoption into caring, loving homes.

Even the smallest amount of instability of caregivers can be disruptive to a child’s growth. An example is a foster child who has experienced multiple transient placements are more likely to drop out of high school, be unemployed as adults, and be prone to developmental and physical illness.

Once children are apart from their parents, they could wind up in facilities that are incapable of safely protecting them while at the same time they take away their most vital resource– their parents. That’s one reason in 2016, a Texas Department of Family and Protective Services could not license an immigration detention center as a child-care facility.

Decades of Psychological Research

According to Jessica Herdon Daniel, the American Psychological Association president, “Decades of psychological research show that children separated from their parents can suffer severe psychological distress, resulting in anxiety, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, withdrawal, aggressive behavior, and a decline in educational achievement. The longer the parents and child are separated, the greater the child’s symptoms of anxiety and depression become.”  

Toxic Stressors

The Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) has attributed parent-child separations as a “toxic stressor.” A stressor is an event that triggers on the body’s stress management system. A toxic stressor can make a body stay on high alert for an extended period.

Separating a parent and child also removes the child’s main barrier against others stressors. Many migrants who are crossing the border experience gang violence, war, and rape. Children deal better with trauma with the support of their parents. Family separation worsens the child’s pre-existing shocks.

The effects of parent-child separation can put a child at risk for PTSD, anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, and the difficulty bonding with other people.

Scholars studied the child’s well-being on the parent-child separations that happened during World War II.  The research on these studies showed that these separations long lasted into adulthood. These adults affected by parent-child separations had an increased risk for poor mental health. It includes poor social functioning, insecure attachment, disrupted stress reactivity, and mortality.


Puberty is also an especially vulnerable time of rapid change. Toxic stressors during adolescence can have lasting impacts–impacts that may not happen until adulthood. 
Also, the effects of traumatic experiences affect also aspects of a person’s life; children and adolescents who have experienced past adversity, are prone to adverse outcomes across their lifespan.

Also, the effects of traumatic experiences affect also other aspects of a person’s life. Children and adolescents who have experienced past adversity, are prone to adverse outcomes across their lifespan.

Parent-Child Separations Also Hurt U.S. Citizens 

There is also evidence that family separations hurt U.S. citizens whose family members experience border detention or deportation. U.S. citizens of Latino descent also report increase worries and concerns for their families and their communities as a result of changes in the implementation of immigration policies such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Countries who have supportive integration policies are more likely to have child populations with better overall health and mental health policies than those who do not.


Parent-child separations lead to a host of long-term psychological, social, and health problems. They not necessarily solved once parent and child are unified. 

A child feels stressed by their need to seek safety and the absence of a consistent caregiver.

What You Can Do

There are many things you can do to help out with the immigration crisis. Here are some ways.

  1. Volunteer- The Texas Civil Rights Project, for example, is seeking “volunteers who speak Spanish, Mam, Q’eqchi’ or K’iche’ and have a paralegal or legal assistant experience.”
  2. Donate- If you can’t volunteer, here are some great organizations that are helping people who are at the border.
    1. Texas Civil Rights Project (donate here)
    2. Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES)
    3. Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights
    4. Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center
    5. ACLU
    6. ActBlue
  3. Attend a Protest.
  4. Contact your elected representatives.
  5. Circulate and Sign a Petition- The ACLU, MomsRising, MoveOn, and CREDO have started petitions to Department of Homeland Security. 
    The National Domestic Workers Alliance has a petition to President Trump.

Try to help if you can, separating a parent from their child should never be an option unless there are suspicious of abuse.

Information from:

Juvonen, J., & Silvers, J. (2018, May 23). Forced separation can cause long-term mental health problems for children. Retrieved from
The Science is Clear: Separating Families has Long-term Damaging Psychological and Health Consequences for Children, Families, and Communities. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Villines, Z. (2018, June 22). The Long-Lasting Mental Health Effects of Family Separation. Retrieved from