The Psychology Behind Why Some Immigrant Kids Struggle with Family Reunification

Young children may push their parents away or become angry with them after a separation, psychologists and medical professionals explain.

Jul 12 2018, 8:41pm

As the Trump administration begins to reunite the families it forcibly separated, many of the parents who have thought only of what it would be like to hold their children again are dismayed to find that their children aren't as happy to see them.

One mother, Milka Pablo, told The New York Times her three-year-old daughter tried to squirm out of her arms, calling instead for the social worker who had been looking after her in federal detention. Another mother, Mirce Alba Lopez, said her son of the same age didn't seem to recognize her when they were reunited earlier this week.

Psychologists and medical professionals say this kind of reaction, while devastating to parents, is typical of small children who have been separated from their caregivers under almost any circumstance, though children placed in especially stressful or unfamiliar environments can be more inclined to such a response.

"The parents are expecting a joyful reunion because that’s what they’ve been thinking about," Kim Schrier, a pediatrician and 2018 congressional candidate in Washington, tells Broadly. "But the child has been thinking, 'Where is my parent and why did they abandon me?' It’s not at all surprising that when the parents will return there's a distrust."

Mary Ainsworth, a 20th-century psychologist known for her development of attachment theory, laid out the patterns of behavior that present in children separated from their parents in her famous experiment "The Strange Situation." The experiment involved, in part, a mother leaving her child alone with the researcher and then returning to reunite with the child after just three minutes. Ainsworth found that some children resisted contact with their mother, pushed her away or ignored her when she returned, even after such a short period of separation.

Children who display these behaviors have what Ainsworth terms "resistant" or "avoidant" attachment styles to their parents, which are usually the result of earlier, formative childhood experiences.

"Most of these mothers are women who were in dire conditions before," Debra Zeifman, a psychology professor at Vassar College, tells Broadly of the asylum seekers at the border. "It's safe to assume that the circumstances these women were living in—the ones that drove them to the make this attempt to enter the country—were themselves very precarious and probably led to some cases of insecure attachments. Those children would be more prone to having this kind of reaction."

Zeifman emphasized that displays of anger and rejection of nurturance are normative patterns of behavior in small children who are separated from their parents for any period of time—she's seen them firsthand in her own research, recreating Ainsworth's foundational experiment. Many parents may experience the same when they leave their children at daycare, school, or go away on a business trip. But what the precise situation to which the Trump administration has subjected immigrant families isn't at all "normative," she says.

"This falls in the category of cruel and unusual punishment," she said of the administration's family separation practices. "For the youngest children, there's simply no way to prepare them to be separated from their parents under these circumstances. The adults weren't even prepared for what happened."

More resilient children who at first rejected their parents or pushed them away after being reunited may recover from their feelings of distrust fairly quickly. According to Mark Reinecke, the chief of psychology in Northwestern University's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, children usually only need a few things from their parents to rebound from a period of separation: consistency, predictability, availability, and affection.

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

The children the Trump administration are returning to their parents are hardly returning to safe and loving environments. Instead, they'll be made to navigate a complex immigration system alongside their parent, who may be coping with their own trauma.

"At the end of the day it’s about the meaning that the parent and the child attach to the trauma of the separation," Reinecke tells Broadly. "If the lesson they learn is that the world is a violent place—that that's why they left Central America, and that's what they're also finding in the U.S.—that's not good. That becomes the lens through which they will view their world."