The Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says it has separated nearly 2,000 children from adults at the southern border over the past 6 weeks. While President Trump just signed an executive order to bring an end to this policy of separating families, the psychological damage has been done. These actions have likely inflicted psychological trauma on these families that may span generations.
Sean Davis, PhD, is a Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy for the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) at Alliant International University and is one of the nation’s most cited authors in his field. Sandra Espinoza, PsyD, is also a Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at CSPP, and is an expert in the psychological effects of deportation on the children of deportees. We have gathered their expertise to examine the psychological consequences of this forced separation.
The Psychological Effects on the Children
Part of each human’s development depends on their attachments. When we are children, we are constantly asking ourselves in the back of our minds, “To what extent can I count on other people to be available and responsive when needed?” When we are hungry, are we fed? When we are injured, are we helped? When we are distraught, are we comforted? Children who find that they can rely on a caregiver will form what is called a “secure attachment.” Children with a secure attachment grow into adults with a healthy self-esteem and accurate appraisal of the safety of world around them. “A child’s sense of self begins with the contact of a loving caregiver,” says Dr. Sandra Espinoza. They grow up believing that they are fundamentally good, that their needs are valid, and others will be responsive when needed. The trauma of arriving in an unknown place after a perilous journey, then being forced away from your parents or caretakers and being separated from them for an unknown period is developmentally destructive. “The trauma that these actions are likely causing often sets in motion a deep distrust in the goodness of other people and in the legitimacy of their own needs as a human. It causes profound, long lasting effects on their emotional development that can ripple through generations,” says Dr. Sean Davis.
As Dr. Davis puts it, “When the trauma is inflicted at a young enough age, this deep distrust shapes the way they see the world, and it isextremely difficult to change this in adulthood.” The psychological well-being of these children can be affected for the rest of their lives, and can even affect their children’s lives.
As adults, it can be difficult for them to trust that a partner will be there for them, so they may withdraw from any meaningful connection at all. It is less painful to pretend they don’t need anyone than it is to reach out for connection and be rejected - a response their life experience has told them is almost certain. Other trauma survivors go to the other extreme and latch on to anyone that shows a glimmer of being supportive.These survivors think to themselves, “I will be whatever this person needs me to be as long as they don’t leave me.” This person lives their life in constant fear of being abandoned. Unfortunately, their clinging behaviors often lead them to the rejection they are so afraid of. In addition to being at greater risk for exploitation, these survivors are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.
Some of the short- and long-term effects on these children may be:
· Acute Stress Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
· Extreme emotional withdrawal
· Substance abuse
· Attachment Disorder
The Psychological Effects on the Parents
When we asked about the psychological impact of having your child taken from you, not knowing where they are, not being able to keep them safe, and not seeing or hearing from them, Dr. Davis spoke of a classic experiment in which dogs were placed in electrified cages. The person conducting the study had the ability to electrify the cages at the push of a button. All cages had mechanisms on the inside that the dogs could push. Cage number one had a lid that easily opened to let the dog out and away from the shock of electricity. Cage number two required certain buttons be pushed to open the lid. Cage number three had a lid that would simply not open. The dogs in the experiment were studied for psychological responses by measuring indicators like hormone levels such as cortisol which indicates stress and anxiety.
What the study found was that the dog in cage number one recovered from the stress of the event shortly after escaping the cage. The dog in cage number two experienced very high levels of anxiety while the cage was being shocked and while figuring out how to escape but his cortisol levels normalized after a while. The dog in the third cage—the cage which had the same mechanisms as the other cages but had no way out—that dog was deeply traumatized. That dog made an effort to get out, realized that he couldn’t, and then eventually gave up. He lapsed into a depression that did not go away after he was released from the cage. This study introduced the idea of “learned helplessness” - a state in which a person believes they have no control over their ability to escape a torturous situation, so they eventually stop trying and lapse into a deep depression.
The parents in this forced-separation situation have been effectively put in that third cage. “They are being taught that the world at any time could become cruel and intolerable beyond their control and that they essentially do not possess the ability to escape their torturous situation, nor can they expect anyone else to help them” said Dr. Davis. “And that is a fundamentally depressing thought. We are wired to be able to control our environment, to have a sense of control over what happens to us, this is fundamental. This attitude is especially taken for granted in America. And we’re likely to see learned helplessness with some of these people because this deep, fundamental trauma is out of their control.”
From PTSD and anxiety disorders, to learned helplessness, the psychological trauma that hundreds of families have endured at the hands of our government can last not only a lifetime but are likely to affect entire generations.
After learning of the psychological consequences of this “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that forced children from their parents’ arms, it is important to consider one particular thought that came from Dr. Sandra Espinoza throughout the course of these interviews: “Immigration policy shouldn’t be treated as a political issue, it should be treated as a human rights issue.”