ASU psychologists agree — unexpected separation from parents is harmful to children both in the short and long term

By

Robert Ewing

The Arizona State University Department of Psychology has a history of research supporting children and adolescents experiencing crisis, anxiety or trauma. Scientists in the department have produced several internationally renowned intervention programs to help improve their long-term outcomes.

Experts all agree — separating children from their families is harmful to the child’s development and long-term physical, mental and emotional health.

“The evidence underscores the importance of prioritizing keeping children secure with their families,” said Marc Bornstein, president of the Society for Research in Child Development. 

In light of the recent separation of immigrant children from their parents at the U.S. border, ASU Now asked experts in the department to share their thoughts.

Leah Doane, associate professor of psychology, is an expert on stress processes and consequences in children and adolescents. She leads the Adolescent Stress and Emotion Lab and is a principal investigator of the Arizona Twin Project. Her “Transiciones” project studies ways that Latinos adapt to stress in higher education.

Armando Pina, associate professor of psychology, is an expert on anxiety and courage in children. He leads ASU’s Courage Lab and helped launch the award-winning Compass for Courage project that is currently being used in 26 local schools. Pina also studies separation anxiety in children.

Sharlene Wolchik, professor of psychology, and Irwin Sandler, ASU Regents’ Professor of psychology, are the co-founders of the New Beginnings program, an intervention program designed to help children cope during divorce.  The program has expanded beyond ASU and Maricopa County to other family courts in other states.

Question: What immediate or long-term effects might be expected in children who have been unexpectedly separated from their parents?

Doane: Family separations lead to serious physical and psychological consequences. Such separations represent sources of stress and trauma for children and parents alike. Research evidence is clear regarding the impact of child maltreatment and trauma on immediate and long-term outcomes for children. In the short term, children’s basic psychological needs stemming from warm responsive caregiving and reassurance under stress are not met, leading to chronic activation of physiological stress processes and emotional distress.

These experiences in children have been linked to the development of serious emotional disorders, worse cognitive performance, and changes in physiology in childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. Such disorders can include post-traumatic stress, depression and changes in physiological stress systems and brain function. 

Pina: Separation that is unexpected is stressful and traumatic. We know that the immediate or long-term effects on children who are separated from their parents can vary because of a number of factors: the age of the child, the nature and length of the separation, the child’s reaction to the separation, and the child’s coping ability. For example, among very young children, unplanned separation can increase behavioral problems at ages 5 to 6 years old.

Developmentally and clinically speaking, there are different types of stressful events and separation, such as the death of a parent, divorce, foster home mobility, or abandonment, that we can draw on to better understand and predict the long-term outcomes for children. One could expect anxiety, depression, poor academic performance, low school liking, peer rejection, mistrust, illegal substance use, criminality, reliance on public assistance, residential instability, and even an increased risk of suicide in some cases. In fact, the association of an increased risk of suicide remains even after adjusting for school and childhood mental health problems.

Wolchik and Sandler: Based on other examples when children have been forcibly separated from their parents, we can expect that this situation would be a very traumatic experience. In the short term, children are likely to be anxious, depressed, scared, confused and wary of adults. They may cry inconsolably, bed wet, fight and worry about what is going to happen to them and their parents. The long-term effects depend on how long they are separated and the conditions in which they reside. But these children, many of whom have already experienced other traumatic events, might well develop serious long-term problems such as hypersensitivity to separation, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Q: What can be done immediately or in the future to lessen any negative effects on the children?

Doane: Swift reunification without threat of additional separation will help both children and parents. Strategies must also be implemented to help families cope with this significant stressor both immediately and in the future.

Pina: It is important to screen and identify children who might need social services. Unfortunately, there is no cure for any of the mental health factors that typically result from such an atypical separation. If children are identified as at-risk for illness or diagnosed with the psychiatric problems that can result from traumatic separation, then our best option would be to provide interventions known to help children learn coping strategies aimed at reducing the severity and impact of the symptoms associated with trauma. Sadly, the scars of trauma and traumatic separation tend to be lifelong and costly to all.

Wolchik and Sandler: The most important thing is to reunite the children with their parents as quickly as possible and to allow their parents to take care of them. There is really no substitute for reunification.