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ASU officials discuss harmful effects on children detained at the US-Mexico border

ASU researchers weigh in on the short and long-term effects on children separated from their caretakers at the border

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"Separating children from parents leads to harmful long-term effects." Illustration published on Tuesday, July 3, 2018.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, at least 2,000 children have been separated from their parents or guardians after crossing the U.S. border since early May. 

In June, President Trump signed an executive order that reversed his policy of separating families at the border and replaced it with a policy that states how families will be detained together.

Although this order puts a halt to these events of child seperation, ASU professionals are looking into the physical and psychological effect on these children, for perhaps the rest of their lives, even if they are still detained with their families. 

Robert Weigand, principal lecturer at The Sanford School at ASU and the Director of the Child Development Laboratory at ASU, is a member of the Infant-Toddler Mental Health Coalition and is endorsed by ITMHCA as an infant mental mentor. He has been a member for over 15 years. 

Weigand said in an email that one of the most threatening and frightening things one can do to a young child is forcibly separate them from their parent. 

“For infants and toddlers especially, this is terrifying,” Weigand said. “In fact, separation of this kind (is) so traumatic for children, that it is sanctioned only in cases of abuse or neglect by the parent.”

Weigand said that several organizations and groups of experts have condemned separations at the US border for this reason. 

“When we assert that these separations are traumatic, we are suggesting that the consequences of this stress are both immediate and can be lifelong,” Weigand said. “Human infants have evolved to need the sensitive care of a reliable and familiar caregiver. They suffer when that care is absent or seriously disrupted, and a stranger will not do.”

Weigand said that at these young ages, children need to rely on their special relationships with their parents.

“To say that these young children experience anxiety puts it mildly,” Weigand said. “They experience what developmental scientists term toxic stress – a prolonged and intense activation of their little bodies’ stress management system.”

Weigand said that developmental scientists now recognize that toxic stress adversely affects both mental and physical health. 

“Very young children have no way of knowing that separations are temporary, nor can they have any sense or expectation that they will be cared for in their parents’ absence,” Weigand said. “The security, the on-going sense of well-being that enables them to grow and learn, depends on the moment-by-moment sensitive responses they get from their caregivers. These, what some infant development specialists call micro-events, are the stuff that build in the baby the sense that, when the need arises, care will be there.” 

Anne Kupfer, the Director of the Psychology Child Study Lab at ASU and Senior Lecturer faculty in the Department of Psychology, said in an email that there is data that shows that early physical environments will have a direct effect on changing the brain’s structure and function. 

“Depending on the age of the child, any time spent in these types of environment will result in a decrease in the volume of brain cells,” Kupfer said. “Perhaps this is the conduit for the long term poor emotional and psychological problems experienced by children who undergo such atrocities.”

Daisy Camacho-Thompson, a research assistant at the REACH Institute in the Psychology Department at Arizona State University, said in an email that when children are separated from their families, the traumatic event can cause anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder, along with increasing the probability that these children may also struggle socially in the short and long-term.

“The presence of a parent can ameliorate the stressors that migrant children face during migration and detention, such as the journey from home and transition to a new place, the cage-type holding cells, and the extremely poor conditions in detention centers,” Thompson said. “Without parents, the effects of these compounded stressors only worsens.”

Thompson said that there are recent studies showing that even when children are reunited with their parents, some may have attachment problems, suffer from lower self-esteem and have a higher likelihood of poor physical and mental health. 

“Having experienced the traumatic event of separation from a parent, there are a number of long-term psychological, social and physical effects that could occur. The brain’s reactivity to stress can be altered, which is associated with a host of psychological outcomes, such as anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, lower IQ, obesity, immune system functioning, stunted growth, cancer, heart and lung disease ... and morbidity.”

Thompson said that these traumatic stressors impact children across the age spectrum, and it could be that the effects do not manifest for some until adulthood.

Weigand said that this sense of security is the hallmark of healthy attachment relationships and is essential for child to feel safe, to regulate their emotions and impulses and to explore and learn about their world. 

He said that major disruptions to this relationship and this essential sense of security, pose great risk to children’s development.  

Kupfer said that while being kept with their parents, children will be able to cope better with the situation with which they find themselves. 

“The situation will still have severe deleterious effects on their psychological well-being,” Kupfer said. “Particularly if the children were told when they embarked on their journey to the United States, that there was a hopeful and better life at the end of their exodus. To be given this hope and to then experience such total despair and lack of control will gravely impair the child’s sense of self-esteem and worth.”  

Weigand said that the actual moment-by-moment experience of being detained and incarcerated at the border is surely frightening, even if families are kept together.

“Parents and children alike are stressed, even traumatized by this sequence of events,” Weigand said. “Very little if any of this experience conveys to families a sense of safety, let alone dignity. When a parent fears for their safety, when they are treated inhumanely, their fear and distress is recognized by even the youngest of their children. Harsh physical conditions contribute greatly to their fear and add to the trauma these children and parents have already experienced.”

Weigand said there is no way an infant or toddler can know that this separation will never happen again, or that the policy has changed. 

“They only know the fear,” Weigand said. “The parents and children need a sense of safety and security. For some, developmentally appropriate and trauma-sensitive infant mental health and family support services will be needed.”

Thompson said that the most immediate way to lessen these negative effects on these children is to reunite them with their parents as soon as possible. 

“Children depend on their parents to successfully navigate stressful life events,” Thompson said. “Continued contact with parents can protect children from the effects of the excessive stress of their migrant/refugee status.”

Thompson said that some children never quite recover from being separated from their parents, but fortunately, since the brain is a malleable organ, it may be able to restructure and recover with care. 

“It is unlikely that these families have access to this type of care, however,” Thompson said. “Families would benefit from immediate reunification, access to centers that abide by hygiene standards and provide healthy meals, immediate psychological and medical services, and activities for positive youth development to minimize the daily stress children are currently enduring.”

Weigand said that how we respond to those in need, certainly vulnerable families with infants and toddlers, defines who we are as a nation and as a community.  

“Do we add to their pain and suffering?” Weigand said. “Or do we do our level best to help them begin to heal? What we do or what we fail to do in response to this crisis tells the rest of the world and future generations who we are. Why is it important that we care? The obvious and simple answer is: They are suffering, and we can help.”

Reach the reporter at or follow @jessiemy94 on Twitter. 

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