Emotional Health

Incalculable Damage:
Separating Children and Parents Is the Equivalent of Psychological Torture

Strong words have been spoken from many quarters this week about our new policy of forcibly separating children from their parents. Opponents have addressed its many wrongs from political, moral, and humanitarian viewpoints.

I would like to add another: this policy is the equivalent of psychological torture.

Imagine if people crossing our borders were arrested and then exposed, intentionally, to a virus that was dangerous and possibly deadly. That is the equivalent, in physical terms, of the psychological damage we are inflicting on these families.

Psychological health is directly correlated with what are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s). There are three broad categories of traumatic situations that have a direct effect on mental health. They are

  1. Abuse
  2. Neglect
  3. Household dysfunction

The more ACE’s a child suffers, the more vulnerable he or she is to mental and emotional illness. The administration’s new policy delivers a trifecta of an ACE score: it creates all three categories of adverse experiences at once for these families.

Abuse can be physical, sexual, or emotional. Psychologists have found that possibly the most damaging of the three is emotional abuse. For example, sexual abuse by a stranger can be experienced as less damaging than abuse by a parent. The latter adds the element of loss of trust with the person who is supposed to protect you. It is sexual and emotional abuse. Children feel and know that their lives depend on their parents–literally. When a parent abuses a child, the situation is turned on its head, and worse, the child is trapped insofar as he has to continue living with his  abuser.

Abuse by a stranger can be radically compounded when the parents refuse to believe it or fail to comfort their abused child. On the other hand, when a child is comforted and protected by loving parents, the traumatic events can be mitigated.

Failure to protect children from harm is psychological abuse. The children who are now being separated from their parents don’t necessarily realize that this situation is out of their parents’ control. Young children only understand things on a very concrete level: something bad is happening and my mother and father aren’t here. Why have they abandoned me?

This also relates to the second type of adverse experience: neglect. These children will automatically feel neglected by their parents, since they will literally not be there to care for them. Add to that the potential for neglect and abuse in these overcrowded “warehouses” where they are being kept is tremendous. And even if their physical needs are being provided for, their emotional needs cannot be. John Bowlby, a British psychologist, discovered that children who were physically well cared for but emotionally abandoned were more likely to suffer a syndrome called “failure to thrive.” For all kids but for infants especially, this can lead to death.

Bowlby’s research propelled a whole new area of research and culminated in the creation of the “Attachment Theory” of psychology. This theory, which has overtaken Freud’s  “Drive Theory” as the predominant way of understanding of child psychology, explains that the single most important factor for healthy development is the quality and strength of a child’s attachment to caretakers. It is paramount to the psychological growth and stability of all children.

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  • Etta June 21, 2018 at 6:27 pm

    I had no idea that this was printed. I had just unplugged my phone from charging and came upon it. And I can’t tell you how glad I did!
    Why? Because literally every word printed here I totally agree with, so much that I find myself worrying about these children.
    Thank you sooo much for voicing my feelings!

  • Chris Tirpak June 21, 2018 at 12:07 pm

    I’m confused; why are the parents not taking their children with them?

    • Etta June 21, 2018 at 6:29 pm

      Because, based on my understanding, the children were born here. So they’re citizens.