ABCT is concerned about federal immigration policies that lead to children being separated from parents at the border. As a psychological organization, to help inform the discourse we focus on the question: What happens when you take children away from their parents?

It should be no surprise that children, when removed from their parents, even abusive parents, suffer significant distress that can have lasting deleterious impacts on their adjustment and well-being. Here, we briefly review some of the relevant empirical findings.

Studies have been conducted across several continents and cultures - in Sweden, the United States, Australia, and China - all examining impacts on children who are removed from their parents. In general, children suffer trust issues; memory issues; are prone to the same symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that we see in soldiers returning from war; are more likely to suffer physical problems, like addictions, obesity, and binge drinking; more likely to suffer issues of self-esteem; and more likely to act out.

Two studies from Annika Melinder of the University of Oslo (2011, 2013) concern children's removals in child protection actions. The level of distress documented in the children is high, even when they are being removed from abusive parents.

Moreover, she documented that planning for removal (so that it was not a surprise to the child) allowed for better adjustment later, as documented by their memories of events and avoidance of memories of the events, both hallmarks of PTSD.

Yoojin Chae (2017) noted that for "preschoolers, even a brief separation can be stressful for children, and that the stress makes them remember it well, meaning the memories may be particularly robust. One worries that memories of more long-term separations could last a lifetime, contributing to depression, rumination, PTSD, etc." said one of the article's co-authors, Gail Goodman. She also said that those same problems could easily extend into the child's life as an adult, producing "loss of wages, inability to concentrate at school, reliance on tax payer dollars."

All three of these articles studied separation in relation to "attachment theory," which sees a bond between developing child and care-giver. Interference with that the bond, according to Bowlby and the myriad others who have studied attachment since the 50s, is expected to cause problems. How that attachment is broken also has repercussions.

Bryant, studying children separated from their parents during a brush fire (2017), said: These findings demonstrate that brief separation from attachments during childhood trauma can have long lasting effects on one's attachment security, and that this can be associated with adult post-traumatic psychopathology.

The authors noted, "We recognize that attachment styles can be determined by early-life experiences to the extent that absent or inconsistent attachments may result in insecure attachment styles in adulthood," citing Bowlby (1988).

The authors also highlight how, in times of stress, children need to be able to rely on familiar support and security as provided by familiar caregivers, and when that support is removed, they experience difficulty later in attachment security.

Wang, in a study of Chinese children (2017), compared the children of migrants accompanying their parents with children left behind. They found:

  • Left-behind children report significantly higher levels of emotional symptoms, higher total psychological difficulties, and more behavioral problems, than migrant children.
  • Migration with parents, rather than separation from parents, is associated with more favorable emotional and behavioral adjustment.

Guang, in another study of Chinese children left behind (2017), found"

  • Left-behind children were more stressed when experiencing negative events and had more depressive symptoms than children who weren't left behind.
  • Children left behind by both parents were most depressed.
  • Negative-event-induced stress and communication on life difficulties with migrant parents were risk factors for depressive symptoms,
  • Adequate communication on academic performance or children's feelings was a protective factor against depressive symptoms.
  • Communication duration and frequency, communication by visiting, communication on academic performance, life difficulties and children's feelings moderated the relationship between stress and depressive symptoms, respectively.
  • Duration of separation, communication duration and frequency, communication on academic performance, learning difficulties and children's feelings moderated the relation between the type of parental migration and depressive symptoms, respectively.

Xu, studying the same youth, noted considerable extant evidence that:

  • Left-behind children have encountered detrimental physical, behavioral, and psychological outcomes.
  • Left-behind children were more likely to be overweight and obese more likely to engage in activities such as smoking, alcohol consumption and binge-drinking
  • Left-behind children have been identified as more likely to have subjective feelings of neglect ; a lower quality of life , life satisfaction, and self-esteem ; higher anxiety and depression levels; and a higher likelihood of suicidal ideation.
  • that the longer the parent-child separation, the poorer the psychological adjustment of affected children.

Stevenson (2018) found long-distance separation from biological fathers prior to age 12 was linked in adolescence and young adulthood to serious behavior problems, anxiety and depression symptoms, and disturbed relationships with all three parental figures

The American Psychological Association states:

  • Families fleeing their homes to seek sanctuary in the United States are already under a tremendous amount of stress.
  • Sudden and unexpected family separation, such as separating families at the border, can add to that stress, leading to emotional trauma in children.
  • Research also suggests that 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.[formatting altered]

The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies examined some of the research on children being separated from their parents, and it shows harmful long-term consequences.

People, whether law-enforcement, corrections officers, support personnel, military, or judicial, who are entrusted with the care of children, should be mindful of these consequences.

We encourage policies that are not harmful to children.



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