immigration

The Lasting Impact Family Separation Can Have on Parents

Immigrant children who are separated from their parents at the border are at risk of longterm damage to their wellbeing. Medical experts say that parents, too, may see lasting effects to their mental health.

Kimberly Lawson

Kimberly Lawson

After being forcibly separated from their preschoolers for months, two migrant mothers who had crossed the southwestern border and were apprehended by US immigration officials were finally allowed to see their children again on Tuesday. The reunion in Phoenix, however, did not go as the parents expected. Talking about her three-year-old son, Mirce Alba Lopez, 31, told the New York Times: “He didn’t recognize me. My joy turned temporarily to sadness.” Meanwhile, Milka Pablo, 35, tried to embrace her daughter even as the three-year-old reached out for another woman, a social worker at the shelter she’d been living in recently.

Despite a court-ordered July 10th deadline to return separated children under the age of five to their families after entering the country to seek asylum—the result of a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy handed down by the Trump administration—only 38 out of the 102 kids actually got to hug their loved ones Tuesday. Government officials cited “safety concerns” and “logistical challenges” for why the reunification process has been so slow-moving, the Times reported.

Many health experts have argued how imperative it is these families, particularly those with young children, be reunited as soon as possible. As the American Academy of Pediatrics noted in a statement, separating young children from their parents can lead to “irreparable harm,” both in terms of short and long-term development as well as mental health. But since the first reports of these horrific separations started surfacing, little attention has been paid to the impact such actions have on the parents of these children. Some experts who spoke with Broadly said mothers, in particular, who are often the primary caregivers and on average spend more time parenting, may be even more impacted.

Aurélie Athan, a reproductive psychologist who teaches at Teachers College, Columbia University and is founding member of the Sexuality, Women & Gender Project, isn’t surprised by the focus on the wellbeing on the children. She’s been working to revive the anthropological term “matrescence”—that is, a woman’s transition into parenthood—for more than a decade. “Our compassion lies with the child, and rightfully so,” she tells Broadly. “They are the vulnerable other of the dyad—but it’s only half the story when we leave the mother out.”

In fact, Athan says, the repercussions of separation that a mother endures will likely mirror that which her child experiences. “It’s the other side of the same coin, basically,” she explains. “When a child is separated from their parent for a moment, such as, God forbid, in the grocery store, they panic first and start to search and look for them. When they can’t find her, then the fear and anxiety and all that starts to kick up. The same thing [occurs] for the mother.”

Megan Veenema Smith, an associate professor of psychiatry in the Yale School of Medicine and director of the Mental Health Outreach for Mothers Partnership, agrees. “When a mother feels traumatized and insecure, a child feels that same way,” she says. “When a child’s traumatized and depressed, that definitely impacts the mother. That bidirectional relationship is so critical in mental health.”

Both Smith and Athan say research on the traumatic effects of separation for parents is limited. “What we do know,” Smith says, “is that, such as in this case, when a family reaches a destination they perceive to be safe and that’s in jeopardy, that really leads to complex trauma in the parents.”

The length of time matters, too, for the parents, Smith adds. “The longer the separation, the likely of increase in severity of symptoms of trauma, depression, and anxiety.”

Athan, who’s worked with several women in her clinical practice who were separated from their children, says that oftentimes mothers will cope during that time apart by trying to maintain some kind of connection with their child: whether that’s holding onto belongings or photos or revisiting memories in their minds. Even then, however, these mothers risk potentially reviving the trauma of separation. “It’s not necessarily comforting at times,” Athan says, adding that many women she’s spoken to describe their coping as a “moment-to-moment, day-to-day survival.”

Athan also raises the concern that some parents separated from their children may be at risk for suicidal thoughts. “It’s just like maternal deprivation of children,” she explains. “We know that there’s something called ‘failure to thrive’—they can literally stop growing. Mothers can succumb to losing their will to live ... they can stop eating or sleeping or [have] poor self care.”

The negative effects of having a child taken away from a parent may not end after reunification either. Parents may lose confidence in their ability to parent well, Smith says, and that can impact how responsive they are to the needs of their child.

“There’s difficulty in accessing providers that might be available. And of course there’s fear around accessing those resources, not only for repercussions on immigrant status but also the fear of removal of the children once again.”

“These kinds of trauma that are long-lasting often do need treatment,” she says. That’s why Smith thinks it’s so important to consider ways to offer families separated at the border support after they’re together again—especially considering the disparities in mental health care access for undocumented families in the US. “It’s really concerning because there is difficulty in finding providers,” she says. “There’s difficulty in accessing providers that might be available. And of course there’s fear around accessing those resources, not only for repercussions on immigrant status but also the fear of removal of the children once again.”

“I think that that is really an important point to consider when reunification does occur,” Smith continues. “How we can ensure that children and their families receive mental health care?”