Family Separation Can Do Long-Term Damage To Children's Mental Health, Experts Say

Jun 21, 2018

President Trump signed an order Wednesday to stop family separations at the southern border, but experts say the more than 2,000 children who have already been separated could face major mental health problems.

Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work at UT Austin, has researched the impacts of family separation on U.S. citizens whose parents have been deported, as well as migrant mothers and their children being held in detention. Over the years, Zayas says, he has seen children develop attachment issues, lash out and even go selectively mute after being separated.

Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work at UT Austin, says it's not uncommon for children separated from their families to regress.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

“In instances like this, we may see regression in behavior, where a child who has reached certain levels of development many regress to an earlier stage of functioning,” Zayas says. “An older child who regresses to more infantile behaviors, that’s very common among children who have been separated from parents.”

Zayas says the psychological damage being done to migrant children who are detained without their parents is two-fold. Not only do they face the mental strain of detention, but they also do it alone, with tremendous uncertainty about the future. For many young children, he says, the time spent away from family feels like an eternity.

“The young mind doesn’t really grasp the sense of time, the concept of time, the way adults do,” he says. “To a child, six hours could be 60 hours or six days, so a young child will not understand the length of time that they will be held and what that really means to them.”

Pediatricians have warned about long-term health issues that can stem from the "toxic stress" children face in detention, and numerous medical groups are speaking out. In a statement released Wednesday, the Texas Nurses Association said separation at a young age can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The advocacy group Mental Health America released its own statement Tuesday condemning family separation.

“We need to be able to make certain that we can put those children back together with members of their families,” the group's president, Paul Gionfriddo, says. "Then we need to make certain that we start today treating their mental health needs, finding people who can communicate with those kids at the level those kids can understand, and that’s not always easy to do.”

Gionfriddo says people have not fully grasped the extent of the mental health crisis family separation has created.

“That may be because we often think about mental health problems only after people are in crisis,” he says. “So if 20 years from now, one of these children living in this country for a couple of decades then has a major crisis event, then we’ll think about, 'Well, what happened, and what do we do, and how do we fix that or change that post-crisis?'”