My heart breaks as I read headlines and news stories about the immigration policy that is taking a “Zero Tolerance” approach and separating migrating parents from their children, sending the children to shelters or foster care. The reality is that a child’s separation from his primary caregiver can have devastating effects on his mental health and physical well-being. A child looks to his caregiver to provide nurture, security and an understanding of the world. When this important parental guide is taken away, a child is left feeling insecure, lost, fearful and unprotected. Let’s look at some of the possible effects of separating these children from their families.


In order to fully understand the impact of separating children from primary caregivers, it is important that we understand what attachment is. Attachment is developed through the consistent back and forth interaction between parent and child. The consistency of this relationship helps young children feel safe, heard and valuable. It lets them know that they have someone who tends to their needs and will be there for them in times of fear; it is what helps children remain carefree and playful. The presence and responsiveness of a parent during times of distress helps children learn the ‘rhythm of life’; they are better able to function, adapt to a routine, and manage their emotions. As a child’s needs are met over and over by their caregiver, he learns to self-sooth when he is in distress (Understanding attachment, n.d.).


The children who are crossing the border with their parents are clinging even more heavily to their caregivers because they are in an unfamiliar situation, surrounded by strangers and are most likely feeling the unpredictability of the situation as they cross. Remaining by their parents’ side, despite the success or failure of crossing the border, bonds the child and parent even more. It is similar to when you go through a difficult time alongside a partner or trusted friend; it brings you closer together.

When children are separated from their parents at the border, they look to their parents to make sense of the situation and may notice the fear in their parents’ faces as they plead to not be separated. The parents’ distress elevates the child’s distress as they try to determine whether they are safe or not. Once the children are taken into a new temporary home, they may struggle to self-sooth, feel safe, and may feel overwhelmed by a feeling of danger. This may happen even if the child is in a safe placement. In their eyes, they are placed with strangers and don’t have a familiar and trusted adult by their side. One of their most basic needs for healthy development, which is attachment to their parent, is no longer being met.


The following are potential effects on physical health, mental health and learning:

Physical Health

  • hypersensitivity to stress due to an underdeveloped nervous system
  • rapid breathing and heart pounding when faced with normal daily stress
  • development of substance use, extreme dieting, and other behaviors that negatively impact physical health
  • hypersensitivity to sound
  • chronic pain with no physical cause

Mental Health

  • difficulty managing emotions
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • anger
  • unpredictable/explosive
  • emotional numbing
  • easily overwhelmed


  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty reasoning/problem-solving
  • limited creativity
  • easily distracted
  • delayed speech (Understanding attachment, n.d.).

Undoubtedly, children who are separated from their primary caregivers suffer many negative consequences. It is important to remember that children can be resilient and their resiliency increases when they have an adult they can trust by their side. If you or your family members have been affected by parent-child separation in the past and are now struggling to connect, don’t hesitate to seek help from a therapist. A therapist can help you and your child rebuild and strengthen your relationship with each other.


The national child traumatic stress network. (n.d.). Retrieved June 30, 2018, from

Understanding attachment. (n.d.). Retrieved June 30, 2018, from




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Jeanette Razo-Gonzalez, LCSW verified by

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