Parent-Child Separation at the Border: Let’s Talk about the Teenagers

Being forcibly separated from your parents is traumatic. These are the effects teenagers often experience.

There are currently hundreds of migrant children and adolescents who were forcibly taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, and most of them are currently being detained in hastily-made, spartan holding facilities. This policy has been met with outrage by politicians and citizens alike, many of who have expressed concern about the effect even a temporary parental separation might have on young people. It almost goes without saying that being forcibly taken from parents, with no knowledge of if or when you will see them again, is deeply traumatic. From developmental and psychological perspectives, what makes familial separation so harmful for teenagers?

Adolescents still need and rely heavily on their parents for support, even if adolescence is a time of emerging independence. From an attachment perspective, parents continue to serve as a “secure base,” allowing teenagers to confidently explore their growing autonomy while feeling supported and protected by parents who can pick them up if they fall down, figuratively speaking. Thus, parents serve as important buffers against the adverse effects of stress. When teenagers experience adversity, parents can provide much needed emotional support – a loving, unconditional “shoulder to cry on” – while modeling adaptive coping and problem-solving. With caregiver support, adolescents can be quite resilient and can overcome or even grow from stressors. Without caregiver support, the same stressors can become toxic and traumatic, resulting in lasting damage to adolescents’ psychological well-being, social and cognitive functioning, and even their brain anatomy and chemistry. Further, traumas build on one another, and it is important to consider teenagers’ trauma histories when considering the impact of a new trauma.

In the case of the migrant teenagers at the border, being separated from their parents is likely not their first traumatic event. Most of the families attempting to cross the border are fleeing extreme poverty, violence, and oppression under authoritarian regimes. They are leaving the homes they have known for their entire lives, as well as many friends and family members, to find better and safer lives. Many of these teens are still dealing with the lasting effects of chronic, complex traumas. Taking them away from their most important resource to help them heal – their parents – is destructive and may put the teens at risk of developing long-lasting psychological difficulties.

Although there is very limited psychological research on the separation of migrant families, research on foster care and parental incarceration shows that separating adolescents from their parents for extended periods of time drastically increases their likelihood of developing a range of adverse psychosocial issues. These issues include poorer grades, greater likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior, higher risk for experiencing anxiety and mood disorders, increased likelihood of developing posttraumatic stress disorder, and difficulties forming and maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships. Longitudinal studies, in which a group of teens participate over and over again across several years, show that these negative impacts can persist well beyond adolescence and impact individuals for the rest of their lives, even for youth who were eventually reunified with parents. Even though this policy has been reversed and reunifications have slowly begun, developmental researchers are still rightfully concerned. A lot of damage has already been done, it will not simply go away when the families are back together.

So far, much of the discussion has focused on young children, which makes sense, given the importance of consistent, secure caregiver bonds during early development. We should continue to discuss and ameliorate the impact of family separation on young children, and we should also address how the policy has and will affect the hundreds of adolescents who have also been taken from their parents. As SRA’s president, Robert Crosnoe, wrote in a recent statement, “the harm of threats to [the parent-child bond]…is also very real to adolescents. It can be manifested in the short term but also in the years to come as adolescents grow into adults.” Dr. Crosnoe calls for developmental scientists to be a part of the conversation by documenting and publicizing the impact of parental separation on teenagers. However, all Americans, regardless of background and expertise, can use their voices to advocate for faster reunifications and resources these youth and families need. There are several organizations tirelessly working to reunite families and connect them with services they need, such as translation, legal advocacy, food, housing, and medical care. These teens should also have access to evidence-based, culturally-informed treatment for trauma and disrupted attachment. By supporting these organizations and continuing to advocate to local, state, and national lawmakers, we can help these teens and families begin to heal from the deep psychological wounds inflicted at our borders.

 

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Matthew Hagler is currently studying clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston with Dr. Jean Rhodes. His research focuses on adult-youth relationships and youth mentoring interventions.