This commentary was originally published in
The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Newsletter, September 2018, 34, 9.

Parent/Child Separation: Immediate Trauma with Lifelong Consequences

Margaret Paccione-Dyszlewski, Ph.D.

Current United States policies toward immigration has ignited robust discussion about parent/child separation. I suspect that most of us intuitively know that the separation of a child from their parent is harmful to the child-- but how damaging and why.

Humans are born with an innate need to connect to others; psychologists refer to this as attachment. This need to attach meets the infant’s physical needs (to be sheltered, nourished, clothe, etc.) and more emotional needs (to be touched, loved, nurtured, etc.) as well. As the infant grows into childhood and adolescence, the reliance on parents for physical security diminishes. The need for social-emotional support increases as the youngster explores his/her world and develops his/her place in it. When these needs are met, this is referred to as secure attachment.

When a child is abruptly separated from the parent, vital needs go unmet, the parent/ child trust bond is broken and the child is thrown into traumatic free-fall.

It is difficult to capture in words the emotional harm caused by this traumatic separation. Simply stated, if a child loses trust in their primary care provider, who can they trust? Children learn about themselves and their relationships with others from early attachment experiences. If these primary relationships are erratic, neglectful, or damaged, children can become overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness and fear and do not learn how to regulate their emotions or ask for help in an appropriate way. They may become overly dependent or detached.

Research has unequivocally demonstrated that trauma can affect every aspect of child development including brain development, social-emotional growth, relationships, selfesteem, and academic functioning and is associated with a wide-range of psychiatric disorders.

Trauma is toxic to the brain and the neurocognitive development of children. Children who have experienced traumatic separation may show early lags in receptive and expressive language, difficulty with sustained attention and concentration, and delays in cognitive functioning. These impairments have been noted in executive functioning, problem solving, ability to transfer learning, organization and response time. Under these circumstances, typical childhood tasks such as making friends, playing sports or doing homework become difficult, if not, impossible. Children with special needs or language challenges are especially vulnerable.

What is more, the effects of trauma can follow the child through their lifespan. In a landmark research study conducted by the health maintenance organization Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (Felitti, 1998), adults were asked questions about their adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Over 17,000 adults were asked about ACEs such as emotional abuse, separation, parental incarceration or mental illness that they experienced as a child. Almost two-thirds of surveyed adults reported at least one ACE and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs. Study results revealed that as the number of ACEs increased, so did the individual’s lifelong potential for serious health problems such as asthma, mental distress, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and early death. The risk for social, emotional and cognitive impairment, lowered educational attainment and unemployment also increased. Subsequent research in this area has demonstrated similar results.

People of different cultural, national, linguistic, spiritual and ethnic backgrounds may define trauma in different ways and use different expressions to describe their experiences. Traumatic response and the resulting damage to parent/child separation is common across diverse cultural backgrounds.

Humans are relational beings. The family into which we are born is not a choice. Nonetheless, the bonds of affection and support of family are indispensable. Children need to be cradled in the nurturing presence of family in order to become healthy adults.


Felitti, VJ, Anda, RF, Nordenberg, D, et al. Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The adverse childhood experiences study (ACES). Am J Prev Med 1998 May; 14(4):245–258. doi: 10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8.

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Margaret R. Paccione-Dyszlewski, Ph.D., director of clinical innovation at Bradley Hospital and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

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