Family separation causes life-long damage

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On my worst day as a teacher a four-year-old to the hospital for an allergic reaction. I was operating in a pure panic as I scooped the child into my arms and called 911.

The girl wouldn’t speak as we waited for emergency services together. She kept her head tucked beneath my chin, and clung to me so tightly with that I didn’t even have to support her weight with my arms.

We stayed that way as the fire truck pulled into the parking lot.

The paramedics walked into the school and tried to listen to her chest. I say tried, because she was clutching me so closely that they couldn’t get the stethoscope between us. We tried to explain that she had to do it, that it wouldn’t hurt. She only cried and refused to let go.


I was reminded of this girl when I read a story out of a shelter for migrant children in Tucson, AZ.

Three siblings who had been separated from their mother the night before were told that they had to sleep in separate rooms. When they understood what was happening the two younger siblings clung to their teenaged brother, and could not be made to let go. Antar Davidson, an employee at the shelter, was called in to translate the instructions. Even then, the siblings refused to stop hugging each other.

After this event Davidson quit his job.

When we become adults it can be hard to remember how horrifying it is to be a child. Our fears become so large that we forget the small things that terrify children; strangers, new places, an absent parent.

Children respond to stressful situations by turning to a trusted caregiver for comfort. There is a scientific explanation for this. Being held increases a child’s level of the so called “love hormone”, oxytocin, while reducing the “stress hormone”, cortisol.

Toxic stress in children is caused by exposure to prolonged or extreme adversity. Those three siblings, along with over 2,000 other children separated from their families at the border, have been exposed to continuous toxic stress.

Those children weren’t hugging each other to make the adults’ jobs more difficult. They weren’t rebelling against the authorities that were separating them.

They were doing what they needed to do. Exposure to prolonged stress is ruinous to their development. For children, reducing stress levels is a survival mechanism.

When a child is stressed, they experience many of the same symptoms adults do. Their heart rate speeds up, their levels of stress hormones increase and they can experience shortness of breath. Unlike adults, whose brains have stopped growing, the effects of stress can permanently change the architecture of a child’s brain.  

As the amount of time that a child spends in stress increases, the dendrites in the brain, which transmit messages between cells, begin to die off. Soon to follow are the brain’s neurons. As more neurons are destroyed, the physical structure of the brain is altered.

One of the reasons that this damage is so profound and long term is that most brain cells do not renew or repair. Even as they age, children who have been exposed to toxic stress have noticeably decreased white and gray matter.

Dr. John Hagelis, clinical psychologist, explained what these ordeals can do to the rest of a child’s life.

“The trauma experienced by children who are forcibly separated from their parents damages their capacity to trust, to feel safe, and to feel protected throughout their lives. Thereby they become insecure, anxious, and depressed, which impairs their ability to relate to their parents, teachers, peers, and to learn.”

Hagelis says that after trauma children often have physical symptoms as well.

“Typically, they experience somatic manifestations of anxiety such as headaches, stomachaches, enuresis (involuntary urination), or constipation. They also struggle with nightmares, sleep disturbances, and either minimal appetite or learn to use food to medicate their anxiety.”

Because of the substantial research proving a link between childhood stress and life-long health problems, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians and the American Psychiatric Association have all issued statements against the policy of family separation.

Even as the practice of separation stops and families are reunited, the damage has already been done. For many of these children it will follow them for the rest of their lives. Their brains have been permanently altered, and no policy change will erase that.


My four-year-old student was fine after her trip to the hospital. She came back to school the next morning, seemingly happy and healthy.

A week later, a parent accidentally pulled a fire alarm. After a few moments of panic we learned that we were safe. I announced that I would call the fire department.

Hearing that a fire truck might be on its way, the little girl ran to my side.

“Are they coming for me?” she asked. I remember the seriousness in her expression as she looked up at me.

The fear that she had felt for a few hours a week before had changed her view of the world. How will fear change the migrant children?

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