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Dr. Michelle Glantz on the Family Separation Crisis and What it Teaches Us About How to Respond to Our Own Children’s Trauma

By Dr. Michelle Glantz

In recent weeks, the media has been inundated with disturbing pictures, videos, and audio recordings of distraught children and parents having been forcibly separated from one another. Much of the coverage of the “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy guides our attention towards debates around which president or political party is at fault for the implementation of a policy that has separated at least 2500 children from their parents over the last couple months. The more crucial dialogue surrounds how separating children from primary attachment figures causes profound psychological harm, which can have long lasting and devastating effects.

Attachment theory suggests that children are born with an attachment system that is activated when the child is in or perceives distress. When activated, children exhibit proximity seeking behaviors such as crying or looking towards their primary attachments for comfort and protection. A secure attachment to a primary caregiver functions to provide a sense of safety and security, regulates emotions by soothing distress and supporting calm, and offers a secure base from which to explore the world.

When immigrant children are suddenly and forcibly separated from their primary attachments, they are taken from their very source of safety and security. This disruption of attachment is often compounded by poverty, violence in their country of origin, and harsh conditions during travel. Once separated from their parents, children are then placed for an indefinite amount of time in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

When immigrant children are suddenly and forcibly separated from their primary attachments, they are taken from their very source of safety and security.

Psychiatrist and author, Judith Herman (1997) defines psychological trauma as “an affliction of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.”

FACT: Childhood trauma is pervasive and can have long-term negative effects on all aspects of health and well-being. This policy of separating immigrant parents and children who are detained while crossing the border leads to profoundly harmful and traumatic consequences.

Countless studies have explored the effects of war and/or post-conflict situations on children’s mental health and have found a high prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety disorders, and depressive symptoms. Learning difficulties, hyperactivity, somatization, and social isolation was found in Central American refugee children resettled in Canada. (Rousseau et al., 1996).

Fifty-seven percent of Cuban children and adolescents detained in a U.S. refugee camp, 4 to 6 months after release, reported moderate to severe PTSD symptoms (Rothe et al., 2002).

A literature review conducted by Lustig et. al. (2004) explored stressful experiences and stress reactions among child and adolescent refugees including unaccompanied minors, asylum seekers, and former child soldiers. They found that child and adolescent refugees suffer from significant conflict-related exposures.

Sourander (1998) examined the traumatic events and behavior symptoms of unaccompanied refugee minors waiting for placement in an asylum center in Finland and concluded that the refugee children had experienced a number of losses, separations, persecution, and threats. About half of the minors exhibited aggressive behavior, anxiety and depression, attention problems, rule-breaking behavior, somatic complaints, social problems, thought problems, and were withdrawn. Those who were younger than 15 years old displayed more severe psychiatric problems than the older children. There was a lack of rehabilitative services, the staff ratio was very low and the time spent in the asylum center waiting for the placement decision was relatively long for these minors.

Trauma researchers Van Der Kolk and D’Andrea (2010) outline the many ways in which prolonged interpersonal childhood trauma continues to affect individuals throughout life.


Affect Dysregulation

lability, explosive anger, psychic numbing, social withdrawal, dysphoria, depression, lack of motivation, behavioral and emotional “shutting down” in the face of overwhelming stress

Impulse Dysregulation

self-injury, risk taking, eating disorders, substance abuse, oppositional behavior, reenactment of trauma

Somatization and Biological Dysregulation

digestive problems, migraines, conversion symptoms, sexual symptoms, inflammation, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, autoimmune disorders, sensory integration difficulties

Disturbances of attention, consciousness and cognition.

dissociation, depersonalization, memory disturbances, concentration issues, lack of curiosity, poor executive functioning, learning difficulties

Distortions in self-perception and systems of meaning

poor self worth, distorted body image, poor sense of separateness, shame and guilt, learned helplessness, expectations of victimization, lack of sense of meaning and belief system

Interpersonal difficulties

disrupted attachment styles, trust difficultires, low interpersonal effectiveness, intimacy issues, poor social skills and boundaries

Fortunately, most of our children are not faced with the inexplicable trauma of separation from their caregivers. The “Zero Tolerance Policy,” however has forced many parents and caregivers to contemplate the unpredictability of life and to reflect on how we can strive to better protect our children. Despite our best efforts to do so, there are times when we are unable to shield our children from the inevitable complexities, hardships, and uncertainties of life. We can’t help but consider, how we can best support our own children when they face difficulties, loss, or traumatic experiences?

A complete and thorough discussion of helping children through trauma is complex and highly dependent on each child’s particular circumstance.

1. Children may face sickness or death of a parent, family member, friend, or pet. They may struggle with parents’ divorce, a major move, or perhaps something less traumatic, but nonetheless emotionally challenging, such as difficulties with friends or bullying. The best we can do as parents is to prepare children to tolerate the range of complex emotions that will inevitably arise in the face of difficulties. Establishing a foundation for coping effectively with adversity can be one of the most valuable lessons one can provide for their child. A complete and thorough discussion of helping children through trauma is complex and highly dependent on each child’s particular circumstance, but there are several key points to help guide parents through this difficult journey (James and Friedman, 2001).

2. It is okay to feel sad. We have all heard well-meaning adults communicate versions of the message, “Don’t feel sad.” When we invalidate children’s feelings in this way, it sends the message that their feelings are not okay. While we would prefer that our children are happy, telling them not to feel sad only causes them to feel shame about these emotions and to hide them from us. Sadness is a normal human reaction and instead of telling children NOT to feel, we want to teach them that it is OKAY to feel and they will be okay in doing so. If your child broke a leg we wouldn’t tell him or her not to feel hurt. Emotional pain should be accepted in the same ways in which we tolerate physical pain.

3. Help your child by naming the feeling/emotion. Sometimes, children (especially younger ones) have difficulty understanding and labeling their emotions. They might be aware that their tummy feels tight or that their heart is beating faster, but they cannot connect these physical sensations to particular emotions. As parents, we can help our children to connect their physical sensations to their feelings so they can more easily make sense of and process what they are experiencing.

4. Losses cannot just be replaced. Well-meaning parents often will say things to grieving children such as, “I’m sorry your pet died, but we will get another one soon.” In addition to sending the message that it is not okay to feel sad, parents are communicating that relationships are replaceable. Help children to mourn the loss of a loved one or beloved possession in a meaningful way, which in turn teaches them that each relationship is unique and special. There is always time to form new relationships (or get a new pet), but every relationship is separate and unique from another.

5. Sadness, grief, and fear are emotional, not intellectual. Listen and allow all emotions to be expressed without criticism, judgment, or scrutiny. Don’t try to talk your child out of his feelings and remember that emotions don’t always make intellectual sense. Hold off on giving advice or asking, “What is wrong?” Although we are tempted to “make it better,” it’s more helpful to accept and reflect on your child’s feelings and thoughts. Sometimes, just being there physically and listening intently is enough.

When we allow ourselves to model appropriate emotional reactions, our children learn that it is okay for them to have difficult feelings as well.

6. Showing emotion, does not mean you are not strong. It is okay to be emotional in front of your child. This doesn’t suggest that you should have a complete melt-down while your child is watching, but feeling sad and being tearful is an appropriate reaction to a sad and emotionally painful experience. When we allow ourselves to model appropriate emotional reactions, our children learn that it is okay for them to have difficult feelings as well. Additionally, it might be helpful for adults to share openly about their own feelings which will help your child feel more comfortable opening up about their own.

7. It is okay to leave time to just grieve. Messages such as “Stay busy” or “Just spend time with friends to keep your mind off it,” are just another way of saying that it’s not okay to feel badly.

8. There is no wrong way or time limit to grieve. Everyone grieves in their own time and in their own way. If your child is grieving longer than you, it doesn’t necessarily mean this is not okay. Yes, he or she may need some professional assistance, however the length of time alone does not indicate that something is not right. Be patient and don’t force your child to talk if he or she is not ready to do so. Each child is unique and each has a unique relationship to the loss or trauma.


D’Andrea W. and Van Der Kolk, B. (2010). Towards a developmental trauma disorder diagnosis for childhood interpersonal trauma.

In Lanius R.A., Vermetten E., & Pain, C. (Eds.) The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease (pp. 57-68). United Kingdom: The Cambridge University Press.

James, J.W. & Friedman, R. (2001). When children grieve; for adults to help children deal with death, divorce, pet loss, moving, and other losses. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Herman, J. L. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence, from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.

Lustig S.L., Kia-Keating M., Knight W.G., Geltman P., Ellis H., Kinzie J.D., Keane T., & Saxe G.N. (2004). Review of child and adolescent refugee mental health. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 43, 24-36.

Rothe E., Lewis J., Castillo-Matos H., Martinez O., Busquets R., & Martinez I. (2002). Posttraumatic stress disorder among Cuban children and adolescents after release from a refugee camp.   Psychiatric Services, 53, 970–976.

Rousseau C, Drapeau A, & Corin E (1996). School performance and emotional problems in refugee children. The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 66, 239–251.

Sourander, A. (1998). Behavior problems and traumatic events of unaccompanied refugee minors. Child Abuse & Neglect, 7, 719-727.

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