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Psychological Impact of Forced Separation of Families on Children

In response to the "zero tolerance" immigration policy that forcibly separates undocumented children from their families, over 540 state and national organizations whose members work closely with traumatized populations have issued statements opposing the practice. The American Psychological Association (APA), the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Medical Association (AMA), The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT), among others, have written letters condemning the practice as research has demonstrated that forced separation of families can lead to serious physical and mental health consequences.

Jessica Henderson Daniel, Ph.D., who serves as President of the APA, stated, "Psychological research shows that immigrants experience unique stressors related to the conditions that led them to flee their home countries in the first place. The longer that children and parents are separated, the greater the reported symptoms of anxiety and depression for the children. Negative outcomes for children include psychological distress, academic difficulties and disruptions in their development." (

The President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Colleen Kraft, M.D., MBA, FAAP, stated that "We know that family separation causes irreparable harm to children. This type of highly stressful experience can disrupt the building of children's brain architecture. Prolonged exposure to serious stress - known as toxic stress, can lead to lifelong health consequences." (

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, children who experience traumatic separation experience a number of challenges. For these children, the exposure to frightening events, such as watching their parent or caregiver handcuffed or not knowing if their parent or caregiver is safe, can cause continued stress and anxiety. Many experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and symptoms consistent with traumatic grief. Symptoms may include intrusive thoughts, nightmares, disturbing images, avoiding reminders of the event, negative beliefs about the self or others, negative changes in mood, changes in sleep, self-destructive thoughts, trouble thinking, and physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches. (

Another layer to this policy is that the children are being housed in a place where they cannot be hugged, touched, or comforted ( Decades of research on child development and attachment theory have identified how youth rely on strong bonds with caregivers to successfully negotiate challenges during childhood. Interference with that bond, especially due to traumatic events, can have long-lasting effects on later relationship functioning (Bowlby, 1988; In addition, the chronic stress experienced by this adverse childhood experience can lead to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death (

While today’s Presidential Executive Order and upcoming legislation will hopefully end forced family separation for future immigrants and refugees, those children who have already experienced traumatic separation will be struggling with the impact of their experiences for many years to come.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has developed a list of resources related to traumatic separation and refugee & immigrant trauma, which can be found at

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