Adverse effects of separating children from their parents

Press Conference 9/6/18 for “Uncage and Reunite” organization
Adverse effects of separating children from their parents

Alison Steier, PhD


Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today about the issue of the separation of migrant children from their parents at our Southern border.


It will likely not surprise you to know that science bears out our inner wisdom which tells us that a child’s stable relationship with at least one loving, committed and protective adult is crucial to their healthy development.


The survival of our species depends, in fact, on our robust “agreement” that in times of stress, fear or when the chips are otherwise down, the younger, less experienced and more vulnerable member of our species—the child—will seek and find comfort and security through dependable access to one or, if fortunate, a few older, wiser and more competent members of our species—the parents or parenting figures, who are as impelled to protect the child as the child is to seek protection.  That’s the deal.

When this arrangement is disrupted and the parent is lost to the child, permanently or for an extended period of time, someone must stand in the stead of the parent—some ONE. Not shifts of workers—not everyone but no ONE. Someone who cares to learn the child, develop a meaningful relationship, track and respond to the child’s emotions, needs, preferences, aversions, sensitivities…fears.

You see now the psychological and emotional predicament for children being held in detention centers without their parents: The confusion and distress that we know they are experiencing, under other circumstances would be soothed or attenuated by their parents. But, in this case, the usual source of their comfort was made suddenly unavailable and, insult to injury, they are further without adequate substitute care.

It is the quite cruel exploitation of children’s developmental Achilles heel which is the actual or threatened loss of their parent.

From the standpoint of science, we know quite a bit about the consequences of the forced separation of children from their parents. It is a particularly destructive form of what is called, “toxic stress.” Everyone has stress, but toxic stress is intense, repetitive or unrelenting and by definition is endured by children without the support and buffering of a trusted adult.


The world has a tragic trove of stories, observations and data about families forced apart–from enslaved African families, Native American families in the 19th century, the children of the Holocaust, the children evacuated from British cities during World War II to escape the German air raids, and too many more.  We have studies over the past few decades that have used brain scans, analyses of the stress hormones in saliva and other physiological measures.

We have hundreds of studies now. We have no need for more data, and humankind would be better off by far if we ceased putting ourselves in the position of being able to study this dreadful phenomenon.

The conclusion of the research is unequivocal: Separating children from their parents is harmful to them. Period.

Children in this circumstance may suffer anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, nightmares, withdrawal, frequent crying bouts, aggressive behavior, concentration and memory problems, setbacks in learning, and greater susceptibility to illness because of overtaxing their immune systems.


These symptoms have been shown in children who have been held in detention for even brief periods of time.

And early adversity has a long reach.

Research has documented long lasting psychological and physical consequences of separating children from their parents.  

Developing brains that are bathed in high levels of stress hormones for long periods of time suffer a negative impact on their actual structure or architecture and their functioning.

All of the children who were or who are separated from their parents and detained are at risk for the long-term effects of toxic stress which include both mental health problems and physical or medical problems such as diabetes, cancer, heart and lung diseases, and a significantly shortened lifespan.

None of the children are so old or so young as to be somehow exempt from the immediate or long-term negative effects of their separation and detention.

We cannot take solace in those thoughts. They are fantasies, wishful thinking.


Let us turn our attention to ourselves for a moment: we adults, who are charged by evolution—and perhaps other belief systems that we hold—with protecting children.  

We are talking today about an egregious failure to protect to the detriment of the emotional, psychological and physical welfare of children now and perhaps for a long time to come.

We must face that fact squarely and act decisively to change it.

What I have said is not about politics. Don’t let anyone tell you that this is about politics. At the end of day, this is about science. The science of growing up—what we know that children need in order to grow well and the real and lasting damage we adults can do if we’ve got a mind to do it.

We can be better than this.

We must be better than this.


Thank you.


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