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Written by Claudia Belliveau, PhD Candidate, McGill University

The problem:

Forced separation of children from their mothers at the US-Mexico border was very pervasive in 2018 because of a zero tolerance immigration policy put in place by the US government. There may have been a decline in detainments, however, the impacts are long lasting on the children that were detained.

In fact, researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine in New York are investigating just how problematic these detainments were for the children and their mothers.

Impact on a child’s brain:

Generally, we understand that early life stressors like abuse can have an impact of the brain and emotional development of a child. What about a separation from a parent? Does the separation need to be years long to have an impact?

Compared to children of the same age in the US, children detained away from their mothers at the border are experiencing higher rates of emotional and behavioral difficulties. Many of the children even meet qualifications from a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis. These children were separated from their mothers at the border for an average of 9 days (MacLean et al. 2019a).

Are younger children also impacted?

We might think that younger children are less affected given that they might not remember. However, it seems as though the younger the child, the more negative impact the detainment had (MacLean et al. 2019a).

When looking at a different group of mothers and children who had been separated from each other for an average of 55 days, children are still suffering with more emotional problems, issues integrating with their peers and are experiencing overall more difficulties. Within this group, the male children are experiencing more bullying and peer problems than the females (MacLean et al. 2019b).

A conversation we need to have:

Mothers in both of these studies state that they were fleeing their country of origin to escape gang violence or domestic abuse, signalling that their children are already at risk for emotional problems. As a society, we should be doing more by providing more trauma-informed, culturally appropriate interventions when necessary.

Resources for parents:

To learn more about the long-lasting impact of trauma on the brain and how to start the process of healing:

  • Listen to our interview with Dr. Bruce Perry on the podcast or on YouTube

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