In the past two months, more than 2,300 immigrant children have been separated from their parents after crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. President Trump has issued an executive order ending the practice, but it’s not clear when or how the previously separated families will be reunited.
Studies suggest that even when they are reunited with their families, the children who were detained may suffer mental and physical health problems for years to come -- maybe even for the rest of their lives.
“Babies don’t yet have a functioning stress response,” said Charles Nelson, a Professor of Pediatrics and Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, Professor of Education at Harvard University, Richard David Scott Chair in Pediatric Developmental Medicine Research at Boston Children's Hospital.
“They typically rely on caregivers to help reduce stress, so when they become stressed you’ll see an elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and the release of stress hormones,” he said.
Older children will feel the effects as well, and may be able to regulate their stress response better than babies. But there’s another issue at hand.
“Children who are older than three or four may have the cognitive capacity to understand the situation they’re in,” Nelson said. “They realize they’re being separated, and there's the uncertainty that they may not know where their parents are, and they may not know where they, themselves, are going.”
The ability to understand what’s happening is an added stressor to the child that could have long-term effects.
There are multiple factors that could shed light on how this situation will impact children in the long run, outside of actually being away from their parents. For instance, how long the child has been separated from his or her parents, whether the child has experienced trauma before, and whether the journey to the border was traumatic.
The worry is that the longer the separation goes on, the greater the release of stress hormones.
"Those stress hormones can impact memory and emotion regulation," Nelson said. “We could start to see changes inside of weeks. Then, those physiological changes can manifest in behavior changes: heightened anxiety and maybe depression.”
The children may become disruptive as well.
“How long can these kids can sustain their current circumstances before they get embedded and get translated into permanent physiological changes?” Nelson asked.
Nelson said it is critical that professionals be able to monitor the children to ensure that they receive the care they need after the trauma of being separated from their parents.