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The impacts of family separation last a lifetime for children

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The crisis that has unfolded on the U.S. border with Mexico might seem unprecedented in the modern era. Immigration policies have evolved over the years but removal of children from their caregivers has not been regular practice until recently. However, we can look to past events to inform predictions about the implications of these terrible experiences for children’s development and functioning.

{mosads}In the early 1990s, the former Yugoslavia was consumed by a violent civil war. This brutal conflict was genocidal in nature with seemingly unlimited horrors. There were snipers, landmines, and mass rape. Forced separation of families was a constant theme. In parts of Bosnia and Croatia, adult males were removed from their families and placed into concentration camps. As the war ended, nearly every child in the country had experienced some level of traumatic separation from caregivers.


When peace was finally imposed, I was on assignment with UNICEF and went to the center of the former conflict between Croatian and Bosnian forces. My objective, as a mental consultant, was to help put into place a system that would enable children to return to school and family life. Given the extreme level of psychological disturbance among Bosnia’s children, this was not an easy task.

Children were unable to function as their lives were disrupted by constant nightmares, sleeplessness, anger, aggression, anxiety, loss of appetite, and constant fearfulness. I saw post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), separation anxiety disorder, enuresis (bedwetting), and depression in many children. My days were spent listening to children and their parents as they struggled to come to grips with their terrible experiences. At times, the level of need seemed limitless.

One of the most significant triggers to serious psychological problems involves threats of imminent death. Mental health problems often result when an individual is forced to confront the possibility that they may lose their life. These experiences are incredibly powerful and can challenge the basic human need to see the world as meaningful and benign.

Children are completely dependent on adult caregivers for all their needs. Accordingly, forced separation is psychologically equivalent to the threat of death. The effect is terror and helplessness. The child is deeply aware that they are left alone in a fearful world.

Children can be incredibly resilient and many of the Bosnian youngsters were eventually able to move past much of what they had endured. Still, few could let go of the overpowering sense of terror they felt when their parents were taken from them. It was always the moment of separation that had the most enduring impact on their young lives.

Taking children from their parents at the U.S. border will have a similar impact as the horrors of war. The damage that we have done, by secluding children from their families, will almost certainly induce PTSD and other severe mental health problems. The trauma that is being inflicted by the president’s policies will have an enduring impact on the developing brains of innocent children

Earlier in my clinical training, much of my work was focused on treating adults who had suffered childhood abandonment. Many would go on to have severely disrupted lives marked by abuse and violence.  However, their most powerful feelings of despair focused on their early losses. We have likely done the same level of psychological damage to innocent children at the U.S. border. Unfortunately, simply reuniting children with their parents will not resolve the lasting trauma. Their greatest sources of support and security have now been challenged, and the world will never be completely safe again.

Efforts to keep children together with their families under all reasonable circumstances are an important first step. We also need to recognize our obligations to the children who were victims of the earlier policies. There is a very real possibility that President Trump’s hardline policies will result in a mental health crisis for thousands of vulnerable youths and their families.

We are inflicting trauma that will have an enduring impact on the developing brains of innocent children. Forced separation of families at the U.S. border will have a similar impact — including PTSD and other severe mental health problems — as the war in the former Yugoslavia.

We have likely done the same damage to another generation of innocents. And while there is the new executive order, it does not change anything. The damage is done.

David Schwartz is an associate professor of psychology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences. His current research interests focus on children’s peer relationships and on the link between early social maladjustment and later disorder. Prior to joining USC, he served as Program Coordinator of a United Nations-funded psychosocial intervention program in Mostar, Bosnia. This program was designed to provide mental health services to children affected by the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.

Tags Adverse childhood experiences Anxiety disorders Donald Trump Health Mental health Posttraumatic stress disorder Psychological trauma Psychology Separation anxiety disorder

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