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The Psychological Horrors of Family Separation

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It has been 53 days since July 26th, the date on which separated families at the border were supposed to be reunited. So, why are we still talking about it?  

Despite the myriad of promises from the Trump White House about reuniting these families, many still remain apart, wondering if they will see their loved ones ever again.

The backlash sparked by the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance Policy” and the forced parting of parents and children garnered national attention and outrage. It seemed that wherever you looked, you couldn’t help but see some mention of children being put into cages, screaming and crying for their parents. Horrific reports of abuse and mistreatment in detention centers and harrowing depictions of children forced to defend themselves in courts of law emerged as the summer went on. But, as time dragged on and the sensationalism of the story disappeared, so did the outrage.

The articles and anger can still be found, but they are few and far between. Without the considerable weight of the American public, I wonder if the current administration will make good on its promise to reunite all families.

Even if all those separated are returned to each other, the consequences of the current administration’s actions will live long beyond the policy and anger it sparked. Videos of children who no longer trust their parents, believing they gave them up and sent them away to the detention centers, have gone viral. But those feelings can’t last long, right?

Charles Nelson, a pediatric professor at the Harvard Medical School, has done extensive research on the effects of long term separation on children’s brains. Citing research based off a 2000 study done in Romania, Nelson and his colleagues found disturbing differences in the brains of children separated from their families compared to the brains of those who had not been separated.

Children separated from their families at a young age had “much less white….and gray matter,” the fibers that transmit information throughout our bodies, as well as the brain-cells that process and solve problems. Nelson compares the brain to a lightbulb saying: “it’s as though there was a dimmer that had reduced [their brains] from a 100-watt bulb to 30 watts.” These children scored lower on IQ tests, and seemed unable to react to stress. Simply put, our brain cells do not regrow and repair the damaged areas in the same way that the rest of our body does.

Why does the brain begin to malfunction? Contact is incredibly important to us as humans–we literally need to touch and have skin-to-skin contact with other humans in order grow and thrive. The sense of safety and comfort that comes from our families supports this, allowing us to grow emotionally, physically, and mentally. Children separated from a young age lose this sense of security, and their brain develops differently. According to Lisa Fortuna, the medical director for child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center, “the part of the brain that sorts things into safe or dangerous does not work…things that are not threatening seem threatening.

These consequences are seen not only in the immigration populations in the US, but also in children separated from their parents due to divorce, foster care, death, or any other extreme scenario that forces family separation. According to Susan Hois, a Child Developmental Specialist, family separation causes slower development of linguistic abilities and higher anxiety and depression rates. The loss of control and general feeling of helplessness makes children more likely to act in ways detrimental to both themselves and others. PTSD is also more likely to form in children who have been separated from their parents–the younger the child and the longer the separation, the more likely an extreme reaction.

It has been 53 days since all the families were supposed to be reunited. The longer that the current administration waits to reunite families, the more likely the mental strain on these innocent children. The long term effects of these actions will have a profound impact on our society, especially concerning we have created a generation that has grown up with these traumatic memories. The Trump administration has ensured a legacy that will long outlive their time in the White House–the psychological effects produced by the separations will take a lifetime to undo, if not more.

 

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