When a child is forcibly separated from her parents, her body thinks it’s going to die. Stress hormones come rushing in; her heart rate rapidly increases, and her fight-or-flight response goes into overdrive. If she is quickly reunited with her mother and father, the damage is limited in scope. But as days, weeks, and months go by without her parents, those stress hormones begin chipping away at her brain. The result is long-term physical and mental damage.
That’s why almost 10,000 mental health professionals and 200 organizations, including the American Psychological Association, have signed a petition decrying the Trump administration’s immigration policy, which has already separated 2,000 children from their parents. Because the policy is not solely a political debate—it’s an objective public health nightmare.
Here’s a list of (fairly obvious) reasons why it’s a bad idea to separate kids from their parents.
The Short-Term Destruction
Panic is hardwired into our bodies. When we perceive a threat, our sympathetic nervous systems kick into high gear, flooding our bodies with adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones. It’s just the sort of high-wire terror you want when you need to fight off an attacker or make a quick getaway. And it’s what happens to kids when their parents are taken from them.
It’s why children who get lost in the supermarket can’t stop screaming. And it’s why refugee children often appear to throw temper tantrums for days after being separated from their parents. Those aren’t tantrums—they are the sustained effects of trauma and fear. One Holocaust survivor, taken in by a foster family at the age of three, described his experience seven decades later: “In the first home I scream for six weeks. Then I am moved to another family, and I stop screaming. I give up…I am frozen in fear. It is the only emotion I possess now.”
And those are just the short-term impacts. “The effect is catastrophic,” Charles Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School, told The Washington Post. “There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.”
The Irreversible Brain Damage
One of the most robust studies on the physiological effects of separating families came out of Romanian orphanages, which overflowed after the fall of Nicolae Ceaucescu in 1989. A team of neuroscientists examined 136 children who had been forcibly separated from their parents, and found that these children possessed much less white matter and grey matter in nerve circuits involved in cognitive performance, emotion, maintaining attention, and sensory processing.
These children scored below average on IQ tests, and their sympathetic nervous systems appeared to have been fried—they barely reacted under stressful situations anymore. A small fraction of the children were quickly resettled with foster families before the age of two, and the researchers found that their brains more or less bounced back. The others were not as lucky.
“What we see in kids who have been reared in institutions, that is separation from their parents, is a dramatic reduction in the brain’s electrical activity,” Nelson, who was one of the authors of this study, told The BBC. “If they’re then removed and put into good homes before the age of two, a lot of this recovers. But if they’re older than two…there’s no recovery.”
The Psychological Harm
Lest we blame all of the trauma research on Romania, studies on Chinese migrants have shown that children who are left behind while their parents look for work abroad have higher rates of anxiety and depression later in life. And studies have linked U.S. and Canadian policies that forced American Indian families apart to lifelong struggles with substance abuse.
There’s also ample evidence that separating parents and children can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, which in turn has been linked to self-harm and suicide. Indeed, a Honduran man recently committed suicide after he was separated from his family at the U.S. border.
Separating families at the border can lead to “emotional trauma in children,” the APA wrote in an open letter to the Trump administration. “The longer that parents and children are separated, the greater the reported symptoms of anxiety and depression are for children. Adverse childhood experiences, such as parent-child separation, are important social determinants of mental disorders. For children, traumatic events can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health disorders that can cause long lasting effects.”
The Long-Term Societal Ills
Between the late 1800s and the 1960s, roughly 100,000 Aboriginal children in Australia were taken from their families and placed into government-run institutions or adopted by white families. Decades later, researchers caught up with some of these children. They found that this traumatic experience had not only caused them psychological harm—it had led them to a life of crime. They were nearly twice as likely as the rest of the population to be arrested or have gambling problems, and were at more than double the risk of behavioral problems.
Traumatic events, such as separating parents and children, can also “interfere with a child’s ability to succeed in school and prepare to be a productive member of society,” Linna Marten of the Immigration Policy Lab at Stanford University told Fatherly, after she published a study on the impacts of U.S. immigration policies. “They are also associated with welfare dependence.”
The Unambiguous Ethical Problem
The United Nations understands that forcibly separating parents and children can cause irreversible, long-term damage. Perhaps that’s why the UN Convention On The Rights Of The Child specifies that “a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will.”
To that end, nearly 150 ethicists recently weighed-in on the question of whether it is ever morally acceptable to separate children from their parents against their will. (Spoiler: it isn’t).
“Taking children away from their parents is traumatic to the degree that it produces measurable mental and physical stress,” the petition reads. “There is no moral justification for harming children in order to get their parents to behave differently—none. And harming children is in itself a dire moral evil. No amount of ‘benefit’ justifies bullying, coercing, and terrifying children.”
“It is repugnant to use children solely as means to political ends.”