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The Mental Health Effects of Sudden Parent-Child Separation: What Happens When Children and Parents Are Apart

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You may have heard that there is a serious situation involving immigrant families in the United States. Recent news stories show distressing images of children who have been separated from their parents in efforts to enforce a “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

As this situation continues, the debate surrounding immigration, border security and human rights intensifies. But how detrimental is it to separate children from their parents? What mental health effects can develop even if the children’s basic physical needs of shelter and food are provided?

Unfortunately, children who are forcefully separated from their parents in this way (without known, reliable adults to offer emotional, physical and mental support) are placed under severe psychological distress. These effects can last well into adulthood and may even cause trauma to future generations many years down the road. This is because child-parent separation can actually change a child’s physiological development – even when basic physical needs are met – leading to effects that can remain well into adulthood.1

How Children View Forced, Sudden Separations

A number of studies have been conducted on children who undergo unexpected, total separation from parents in early childhood. Often, these studies have focused on children who have been placed in foster homes. In these cases, children are often only taken from their parents after abuse or neglect.

When a child enters foster care in the United States, the hope is that the decision was not made lightly, that the child was offered counseling and support, and that any foster parents were offered education, support and community to help raise the child in their care.

Unfortunately, it is not known if the children who are being detained in the immigration system are receiving any of these important support elements. Photos clearly show that the children vastly outnumber adults at detention centers, and the comforts of home and caring relationships do not appear to be present.

One hopes that these children are offered clear explanations of what is happening or that they are assured of their parent’s well-being and the fact that their parents did not wish to be separated from them. But again, evidence does not yet show that this is occurring. Without these aids – and because the children were abruptly separated with no evidence of parental neglect or abuse – it may be assumed that these immigrant children are experiencing severe trauma.1

How Trauma Affects Attachment

The most noteworthy challenges that occur after traumatic parent-child separations involve the way children attach or bond to the adults around them. Studies demonstrate that children in these situations may avoid communicating with or engaging with new caregivers. They may also avoid engaging with their parents if they are reunited.1

Children who have been abruptly separated from parents for long periods of time with no proper support may:

  • Act as if they do not need adult assistance
  • Decline to reach out for affection from caregivers
  • May become difficult to soothe, even after reunification with parents
  • May behave as if they are numb, or alternatively, may act out with misbehavior1,3

These are all distressing symptoms and may alarm caregivers. Fortunately, these symptoms can be treated if the proper support is in place.1

The Importance of Early Attachment

Attachment, when it comes to young children, describes the emotional bonds and interactions that children have with their caregivers. These relationships are the bonds that allow children to learn and grow so that they may become happy, productive adults who make healthy relationship choices, resolve conflict in healthy ways and have a sense of healthy confidence and balance in life.

The nurturing and caregiving we receive in early childhood helps form our most basic and reliable beliefs about the world. Within a healthy attachment, a child may gain coping skills, negotiation skills and communication skills that are all vital for success in adulthood. People who have had broken or unhealthy early attachments often experience higher incidences of mental illness and greater relationship conflicts in adulthood.2

The way we attach to others as adults is often influenced by our parents as well. This makes sense if you ask yourself questions like:

  • “Did my family hug often?”
  • “Did I feel like my parents would always be there for me as a young child?”
  • “Did my family laugh or talk together?”


The importance of attachment has informed the way that professionals view child separation, foster care and adoption. The new focus is on the primary attachment relationships between caregiver and child because we now know that those early attachments inform the way our brains grow, how our neurons process new information and, in many ways, how we will act as adults.3

If a child must be placed in temporary care, then it is important for both caregivers and parents to understand the importance of bonding and attachment. It is important for children to realize that they are safe and valuable and that their lives will have some reliability from one day to the next. If a child is given these basic things, he or she will stand a better chance of being healthier as an adult.3

What If a Parent Is in Active Addiction?

Active addiction differs greatly from the child separation related to immigration you may see on the news. If a parent has an active addiction, chances are that the parent is unable to fully attach and attend to his or her child. Unfortunately, addiction tells us lies, and it often convinces parents that they are still able to be fully present for their children even while they have an untreated addiction.

The truth is that substance use in the home leaves children more vulnerable to a host of dangers, including neglect, abuse, exposure to crime, financial difficulties and family arguments. All of these concerns erode at a child’s ability to attach to important adults.4

There are cases when a parent and child should be separated. One of the best examples of a needed separation occurs when a parent is in active, untreated addiction. Addiction does not create “bad parents” – it only creates unsafe situations. Perfectly wonderful, loving parents can struggle with addiction or mental health concerns.  But those parents should seek treatment immediately so that they can heal themselves and their family.

Family programs within addiction treatment work with parents and grandparents of young children to ensure a healthy transition before, during and after a parent goes to treatment. Children who are empowered with age-appropriate knowledge and understanding will be able to cope well with a parental separation. Children who are offered counseling, who have parents who communicate with them from treatment and who have the help of family or friends can actually benefit greatly from the time apart.

Healing the Whole Family

When a parent heals from a substance use disorder, that parent’s child heals. Separation from children is hard for everyone, but if you are willingly entering treatment, you are choosing to give your children the best possible version of yourself. Taking time for treatment is nothing like forced separation, and the effect will be a healthier child who has a much happier adulthood.

Further, if you have experienced trauma in your life or if you experienced a disruption in the attachment you had with your own parents, treatment can help. Untreated trauma will impact you and your children for generations. You owe it to yourself to learn more about trauma treatment and trauma resolution. Call us any time to speak with an admissions coordinator about the best options to help you and your family heal.

By Kathryn Millán, MA, LPC/MHSP


1 Carey, B. Reuniting and Detaining Migrant Families Pose New Mental Health Risks. New York Times. 22 June 2018.

2 Jentoft-Kinniburgh, K, Blaustein, M, Spinazzola, J., Van Der Kolk, B. Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency: A comprehensive intervention framework for children with complex trauma. Psychiatric Annals. 2005.

3 Rees, Corinne. Childhood Attachment. The British Journal of General Practice 57.544 (2007): 920–922. Print.

4 Suchman, Nancy E. et al. Substance-Abusing Mothers and Disruptions in Child Custody: An Attachment Perspective. Journal of substance abuse treatment. 2006.