Children who are separated from their parents experience trauma that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. I wonder, what if when my parents immigrated to Australia when I was a 3-year-old, my mum heavily pregnant with my brother, we had been forcibly removed from each other? I can’t imagine the horror and anguish of being torn apart. Yet it is happening now to parents and children, mothers and babies, sisters and brothers.
There is the immediate terror that children feel when they are taken away and the lasting impact on their wellbeing and development. A warm hug that was once there to hold them, a comforting hand to guide them, a gentle smile when they feel scared; these are suddenly gone. In their place is uncertainty and a sudden loss of connection to the world around them.
Families being separated at the US border is only the latest in a history of people being torn apart from those they love the most, from war zones to asylum seekers, and the stolen generation of Aboriginal children in Australia. Whether it is a family like mine looking for a better life, or those escaping conflict and persecution, the bonds that exist between family support us in the face of adversity, and separation is traumatic.
There are many heartbreaking stories of families being separated. Joana, at the tender age of one and a half, was still nursing when she was separated from her mother after they crossed the US border seeking refuge from violence. Five-year-old Daxany and her brother were asleep when they were taken from their mother. Social workers reported on the traumatic experience, telling how Daxany and her brother constantly expressed sadness and worry for their mother.
The Trauma of Separation
The experience of trauma at an early age has been shown to affect learning, a sense of self, trust in the world, and the ability to connect with others.
Research into the life course of children who have been separated from parents (Kindertransports at the beginning of World War II) or subjected to adverse conditions (Romanian orphans) shows that early trauma can seriously affect development, from learning and behaviour, to a child’s ability to function socially in the world.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist and founder of the Child Mind Institute Harold S. Koplewicz explains that children who have experienced trauma:
- Develop problems forming relationships with adults, poor self-regulation, negative thinking and a hyper-sensitive fear response;
- Learn to be wary of adults, even those who appear to be reliable, since they’ve been treated poorly or betrayed;
- Have trouble managing strong emotions and develop the belief that what’s happened to them is their fault; and,
- Think everyone is out to get them and become hyper-aware of perceived danger, leading to anxiety and chronic irritability.
Why Age Matters
Children of every age are impacted by the trauma of being forcibly removed from their family. Without their parent’s protection, children like Joana and Daxany are vulnerable, and start to show signs of abandonment and distrust.
A strong advocate for child mental health, Koplewicz explains how this trauma shows up differently for each age group:
Infants, Toddlers, and Pre-Schoolers
Children are strongly attached to their caregivers who show them how to make their way through the world. The mother who ties their shoelaces before a game, the father who holds their hand as they cross a busy street; all of the small acts of care that show children they are loved. We learn from our parents how to cope and ways to interact with those around us.
Removing a parent removes a very young person’s only method for regulating emotion and learning to respond to the world. These children are left confused and afraid, setting the stage for the chronic and repeated misfiring of their fear response.
School-age children are developing ways to become independent and interacting more with other children and adults. This growth comes to an abrupt halt when they are faced with the loss of their parents and can result in chronic nightmares and re-experiencing of the traumatic separation.
These children are constantly aware of their absent parents. They become emotionally numb and develop a negative opinion about the world around them that often seems oppositional.
For teenagers, who are already dealing with unwanted emotions and searching for their place in the world, being taken away from their families can be utterly demoralising. At this age, they are already torn between childhood and becoming an adult, and this separation forces them to grow up too fast, and often lose faith in the way the world works.
Because they are older, they face an insidious challenge, expected to raise themselves and become independent even though it is beyond their developmental capacity to be as independent as we’re forcing them to be.
What we are witnessing at the US border is the widespread traumatisation of children of all ages, says Koplewicz, and it has to stop.
The Rights of Children and Families
We know the adverse effects of separating families and yet it is still happening even in places where there is no war. Research clearly shows the damage done to children who lose their caregivers, the impact on their development and the trauma that lives on in their bodies and minds. We have a responsibility to take care of those who are most vulnerable and to ensure their wellbeing.
Nothing is ever simple when it comes to immigration but what is clear to me is that families deserve the right to stay together. If I had been torn apart from my parents when we entered Australia, I would not be the person I am today. The trauma of separation would have affected my outlook on the world in ways that are hard to fathom and my heart aches for those children who will never be the same again. Daxany was reunited with her father after two weeks and with her mother after two months. Similarly, Joana was reunited with her mother after three devastatingly long months of separation, the damage done as soon as they were pulled apart and deepened each day.
What can possibly be right about separating people who love each other? There is nothing worse than when a child loses their innocent trust in the world around them. We need to take care of our children and young adults and keep them surrounded by the loving care of their families. Every member of a family is harmed by forced separation, but it is children who suffer the most.