Children separated from their parents suffer permanent damage to their physical and mental health

The separation of children from their parents at the US-Mexico border has sparked global uproar. 

Trump administration border control agents have been detaining kids as young as one in ‘child protection centers’, often thousands of miles away from their parents, and often with no documentation to identify whose child they are.  

The policy, gradually imposed over the last year, has sparked a political firestorm this week as the true scale of detentions emerged, with Trump insisting he has no hand in the matter and his critics saying he has the power to sign an executive order to overturn it.

On Wednesday, the president said he will sign an executive order to end family separation, and start the process of trying to identify which child belongs to which adult. 

But as the debate has raged on, the medical community is calling on the government to recognize the decades-long legacy of apolitical studies showing the adverse health affects – both physical and mental – that children suffer after separation from their parents, even short-term.

Health officials have slammed the policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Pictured: Children and workers are seen at a tent encampment recently built near the Tornillo Port of Entry on June 19 in Tornillo, Texas

Dr Ana Maria Lopez, president of the American College of Physicians, told ‘A lot has been written about childhood trauma and adverse events.

‘It’s in childhood that a sense of person is formed, and part of what’s important in that is to have a sense of safety. 

‘Clearly this situation wasn’t that.’

As humans, we are hard-wired to survive in moments of uncertainty. Just as was the case millennia ago, our bodies jump into action when faced with a threat, such as being separated from our protectors without certainty that they will come back. 

While useful in an evolutionary sense, this fierce bodily reaction deals a heavy blow to our arteries, which can affect our hearts and brains for life.

‘In the presence of trauma, the body goes into fight or flight mode, cortisol levels rise, creating inflammation,’ Dr Lopez explained. 

‘That sets up long-term and short-term effects. It can impact development and emotional development – they may have anxiety, or not be able to sleep, or acting-up behavior. 

‘Long-term, it increases the risk for diseases, including cardiovascular events, cancer and respiratory illnesses.’

Speaking to minutes after Trump announced his plans to reverse the policy, Dr Lopez said the ACP welcomed the move, but warned there will be hefty ramifications. 

‘We are supportive of reuniting families as quickly as possible so people can begin the healing process, but they may need a lot more support than other refugees families,’ Dr Lopez said.

‘Resettled refugees are always offered support because they likely already experienced trauma where they came from. These groups have now suffered more trauma, so they will need support for the consequences of the trauma that they experienced.’

Her words echoed those of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who said in a statement: ‘Separating children from their parents contradicts everything we stand for as pediatricians – protecting and promoting children’s health.

‘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.’

Dr Altha Stewart, president of the American Psychiatric Association, concurred, telling NBC: ‘Any forced separation is highly stressful for children and can cause lifelong trauma, as well as an increased risk of other mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.’

The literature on this subject is extensive.

Decades of studies on humans have documented the way separation tortures those separated, in subtler ways than seems immediately apparent.   

While many studies have been done on animals, these ones listed below are all based on psychiatric interviews or longitudinal studies on humans. 

A study by British researchers in 2009 assessed 24 children who had been detained at an immigrant detention center. On their release, they were referred for psychiatric assessment by a charity. The researchers concluded that the ‘detained children were found to be experiencing mental and physical health difficulties of recent onset, which appeared to be related to the detention experience.’ 

Another British study from 2009 identified 10 studies on child asylum seekers who were detained in Western countries, which found ‘[a]nxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were commonly reported, as were self-harm and suicidal ideation.’  

Children who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, rest in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas on Sunday 

Children who’ve been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, rest in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas on Sunday 

In 2004, the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health published a study on asylum seeker families who were held for an extended period of time in a jail in a remote part of Australia. 

The researchers, psychiatrists at University of New South Wales, interviewed 14 adults and 20 children. They found that ‘all adults and children met diagnostic criteria for at least one current psychiatric disorder with … 52 disorders among 20 children’. 

They added: ‘In their attempt to manage the international asylum crisis, it is important that Western countries do not inadvertently implement policies that cause further harm.’ 

There is no record of studies that have found child detention, and/or separation from their parents, to be harmless.

Dr David Rosenberg, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Wayne State University, warns one of the most common side effects of uncertain separation is a widely-documented mental health condition called separation anxiety disorder. 

The disorder, has been discussed in medical studies for years, with Freud largely credited for bringing the condition to the forefront of psychiatry. 

‘It’s routine for younger children when their mother or father leaves to cry and reach out and need to be reassured that it’s going to be ok, that they’re not gone forever,’ Dr Rosenberg told

‘That gets better with time and ultimately goes away as children become more and more comfortable with separation.

‘But the issue comes in when there is a lack of certainty and control. The more anxious you get, the less feeling of control. And without anyone to assure them, it becomes a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself.’

This experience, Dr Rosenberg explains, sews the seeds for long-lasting trauma that can deprive a child of their sense of reasoning and rationale later in life.

‘Traumatic separations, and unanticipated separations that could be permanent where there’s a lot of uncertainty, increase the risk significantly for what we call a “traumatic event”.

‘They can’t leave the house or their parents because they have a fear of being kidnapped; it’s hard for them to go to school because there’s this fear something tragic will happen to them.’

Dr Rosenberg says he is ‘not making a political point’: ‘I just want to get people to think about it.’

‘What’s more precious than a developing child? If you talk about a society and what we say we’re about, that comes to mind. But also, economically: who are the children we want in this society? Abused? Neglected? Resentful? Or is there a better way?

‘My sense is that we can do better.’