Separating Children from Families at the Border Has Short- and Long-Term Consequences for Mental Health

By Dana Asby, CEI Intern, and Christine Mason

US immigration policies resulted in 1,800 immigrant families being separated at the border of the U.S. and Mexico between October 2016 and February 2018 (Rosenberg, 2018). However, stricter and harsher enforcement of these policies during the last two months has gained international attention and a worldwide outcry. The United Nations’ human rights office has declared that the actions taken by U.S. Border Patrol violate human rights and international law and must cease immediately (Cumming-Bruce, 2018). Over 2000 children have been separated from their families in the last month alone, some of them taken from their mother’s breast as they are feeding (Lavendera, 2018).  After these children are taken away, they are housed in inadequate facilities without sufficient staffing, therapists, or even carektakers who speak their language. Many of the young children are screaming and crying, showing obvious trauma and distress. Notably, there are estimates that over 11,000 unaccompanied children are in HHS custody; this includes both separated children and also children who came to the US alone.

At CEI, we, like many around the world, are struggling to understand how such a barbaric practice as separating parents from children could be enforced as official policy in this day and age. Can you imagine the anxiety that both parents and children must be facing? However, the practice of separating children from their parents did not start in 2016. We have substantial evidence of the long-term damage that such actions produce. Consider the federal program the American government created under the Indian Office in 1879 that led to a series of boarding schools where young Native boys, taken from their villages after misleading parents, were given makeovers to appear more American and taught how to fit in with the rest of society (Reyhner, 2013). Today, Native American populations tend to be poorer, less educated, less employed, and in poorer physical health. They also experience more mental health issues than other racial groups in the U.S. (Gone & Trimble, 2011). While the complex history of Native Americans includes more than separating children from their parents, we know that this alone can lead to devastating mental health consequences. 

Compromising a Sense of Safety. While the current separation occurring at the U.S. border may have been fueled by a desire to discourage immigrant families from entering the country rather than to forcibly assimilate a native population to a new immigrant culture, the consequences of family separation remain the same: emotional dysregulation, disruption of the stress-response system, and lack of a sense of safety. Children learn about their world and how to interact with it by taking cues from their primary caregivers on how to regulate their own emotions. When children are separated from their parents, they lose the stable being they’ve looked to as an example of how to soothe discomfort. These children may remain in a heightened state of arousal for long periods of time. Young children, whose brains are developing at a rapid rate, are particularly susceptible to the effects of chronic stress. The constant flood of cortisol that occurs in response to a stressful stimulus can cause the amygdala to become overly sensitive, functioning in hyperdrive. When this occurs, children will react with inappropriate fear to everyday situations and often have difficulty focusing, and may demonstrate either withdrawal or aggression, leading to both short-term difficulties and also social and other problems later in life (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2014). 

What Needs to be Done.  We are pleased to see that many educators and other organizations are speaking out and that President Trump has issued an executive order that parents and children be housed together while awaiting decisions regarding deportation. So we can feel some sense of hope that this deplorable practice has ended. Now, children and parents need to be reunited. One pro bono attorney for immigrant families is suggesting that it could take up to a month for this reunification to occur.


Cumming-Bruce, N. (2018, June 5). Taking migrant children from parents is illegal, U.N. tells U.S. The New York Times. 

Gone, J. & Trimble, J.E. (2011). American Indian and Alaska Native mental health: Diverse perspectives on enduring disparities. The Annual Review of Clinical Psychology.

Lavandera, E. (2018, June 14). She says federal officials took her daughter while she breastfed the child in a detention center. CNN website.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2005/2014). Excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain:Working paper 3. Updated Edition. Harvard University website.

Reyhner, J. (2013). A history of American Indian Education. Edweek website.

Rosenberg, M. (2018, June 8). Exclusive: Nearly 1,800 families separated at U.S.-Mexico border in 17 months through February. Reuters website.


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