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Immigration, Separation & Mental Health: The Dangerous Affects on Children

little girl reaching for heart symbolizing the separation of migrant children from their parents at the border

Although President Trump put an end to the "zero tolerance" border enforcement program in May 2018, we cannot stop our advocacy work to help the children and families affected. Parents of more than two thousand children continue to wait to be reunited with their families, despite the end of this program due to bureaucratic delays (4). Thus, these children continue to wait in foster homes and group facilities and will remain so for some time. The mental health issues for these families, especially the children, can be significant and long lasting.

Attachment is everything! Attachment is formed in childhood and is critical for healthy development. It is usually formed based on the types of relationships we have with our primary caregivers, for most this is our parents. Our attachment affects the ways in which we view the world around us and interact with the people in it. It can determine how we come to relate and hold meaningful, intimate relationships. Thus, childhood trauma can trigger the development of insecure attachment where the child expects that their needs will not be meet by others (2). For example, if as a child you were sporadically or never nurtured or soothed by your caregiver you may have learned that the world is an unpredictable place where you must fend for yourself to survive. Whereas, if you could rely upon your caregiver for emotional and physical nurturance and support your worldview would be very different. Our attachment orientation affects us long after we are grown and no longer need parental support/guidance. Fostering strong attachments in children is one way to establish a strong foundation for healthy adults. Thus, when children are being ripped and kept away from their parents we are threatening their attachment and putting them at risk for other mental health concerns both now and in the future.

When children are emotionally overwhelmed they look to their attachment figures for comfort and support to assist in regulating their emotions, as they don't yet have the skill set to do this on their own. When attachment figures are unavailable during times of high stress and trauma this further compounds a child's level of distress and increases their negative emotional response (3). Research has shown that the effects on one's mental health can last four years after the initial event. That's right, four years due to this break in attachment. Separation from caregivers is correlated with further increases in depressive symptoms, PTSD, and anxiety following a stressful and/or traumatic experience (3, 5). Dr. Elizabeth Barnert argues that family separation can affect children's physical health as well (6). Disruption of attachment by trauma can lead to long-term, if not lifelong, effects on children's interpersonal style, ability to regulate emotions, foster intimate relationships with others, and hold meaningful parent-child relationships (1, 2).

top is photo of Ellis Island where immigrants are welcome, side photo represents a parent holding their child close, and bottom is an immigration officer

So, what do we do!?! Reunite, connect and heal. Reuniting families and ending the trauma and stress on the child and family is the first step towards recovering and healing these individuals. However, we know that the damage will extend long after families are reunited. Thus, helping these families gain access to mental health and social support is critical both now and for the years to come. Read my other blog post, Starting Therapy 101, to gather more information on how to find a therapist near you.

Now is the time to be M(aking) A D(ifference). So, if you are wanting to help these children and families, please consider donating your time or money to make a difference. Here are some things that you can do or places you can donate to RIGHT NOW, no matter where you are:

  1. Save the Children - global charity for children

  2. Baby2Baby - provides basic necessities (e.g., diapers, clothing) to children ages 0-12 in low-income environments

  3. ActBlue - Splits contributions evenly between organizations working to protect migrant children from being separated from their families

  4. Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights - Defends the rights of unaccompanied migrant children

  5. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) - Works to protect and save children's lives by providing nutrition, crisis relief, immunizations, education, health care, and more. They work in more than 190 countries and territories.

  6. For those in Arizona, The Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project works with families in immigration custody by providing free social and legal services.

  7. For those in Texas, RAICES is a nonprofit providing free or low-cost legal help and paying the bonds for parents being held in detention.



1) Breidenstine, A. S., Bailey, L. O., Zeanah, C. H., & Larrieu, L. A. (2011). Attachment and Trauma in Early Childhood: A Review. Journal of Child & Adolscent Trauma, 4, 274-290.

2) Erozkan, A. (2016). The Link Between Types of Attachment and Childhood Trauma. Universal Journal of Educational Research, 4(5)

3) Gallagher et al. (2016). Mental Health Following Separation in a Disaster: The Role of Attachment. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 29, 56-64.

4) Jordan, M. (2018, June 25). Torn Apart at the Border, Kept Apart by Red Tape. The New York Times.

5) Schimmenti, A. & Bifulco, A. (2015). Linking Lack of Care in Childhood to Anxiety Disorders in Emerging Adulthood: The Role of Attachment Styles. Child and Adolescent Mental Health. 1, 41-48.

6) Van Ness, J. (Producer). (2018, July, 17). How Does Traumatic Family Separation Affect Children? with Dr. Elizabeth Barnert [Episode 62]. Getting Curious with Johnathan Van Ness. Podcast retrieved from


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