US-Mexico – 25 June 2018

Psychological impact on children from family separation

Children separated from caregivers at US border now need stability and predictability says SOS Mental Health and Psychosocial Advisor

Q&A with Teresa Ngigi, SOS Global Mental Health and Psychosocial Advisor
Q. When children are taken from their parents at borders, what do they experience emotionally and psychologically?

A. Every child that is separated from a parent or caregiver has already endured tough experiences during the migration. At the time they are ripped from their caregivers at the border they were already experiencing huge amounts of stress because, even though they were with a parent, they were away from the familiar and from their structure at their place of origin. It is not as if the children were sitting on the roadside and were suddenly taken away.

They would have experienced hunger, thirst, being tired and having a stressed parent during the migration. This event of separation compounds the stress the child is already experiencing and could lead to toxic stress. The children find it hard to make sense of what is happening around them.

This is a very difficult experience for a child. Such adverse circumstances will trigger stress hormones and the child will go into fight-or-flight response. With the release of the stress hormones all other faculties will shut down because the child must survive. Sleeping, digestion, bonding functions – all of these are now on hold because the child must survive what is referred to as an adverse experience.

Q. What will happen to a child when such an adverse experience is prolonged?

A. If this adverse experience is not buffered by a safe environment, the child will remain at this level of toxic stress and this could impact on the child’s development or lead to physical illnesses such as autoimmune diseases, diarrhoea, growth problems, among others, because the child’s immune system will be affected.

This child cannot sleep, may have trust issues, will find bonding difficult because they feel suspicious. When an adverse experience happens children need their caregivers to provide safety, care and nutrition so that they are not on ‘alert’ all the time.

Q. Is it important for these children to know what happened to their parents?

A. These children could feel abandonment. Especially the little ones, the babies, will feel this because they won’t know what happened to their parent. What we are seeing is that the authorities taking care of these children are not supposed to bond with the children, no cuddles. And the child remains on ‘alert’. The future for the child is very uncertain and this will continue to affect all the faculties. Since it is hard to make sense of the situation, the child might blame the parent for abandoning them.

What we see in SOS families is that when children who were abandoned get structure and affection they flourish because children are resilient.

Q. This happened and cannot be undone. What can now be done to help these children?

A. There is no quick fix solution to this situation. The first step is to make the children feel protected. If children do not feel protected, their lives may be shattered.

The adults taking care of these children in the different types of facilities need to help provide structure to the children. They need to have enough food, sleep in peace, play and have structured activities to release their stress. Play is very important to re-establish a child’s life. As far as is humanly possible, the child needs to be helped to understand what comes next: ‘If I wake up tomorrow morning, what can I expect?’

The child needs to be allowed to reconnect with him or herself because they could be very, very fragmented. This is called internal integration, and it is necessary for healing.

Children are very resilient. Neuroplasticity, where brain cells can be changed, has shown that the brain can rewire and the adverse experience and consequences can be mitigated.

Q. Following an executive order to stop separating children from their parents at borders, an alternative plan is to keep these families confined in places such as military bases. What effect may this move have on children?

A. This is institutionalisation and it brings about several negative effects. Bonding is very important, but in such a place it may be difficult to bond. In Institutions, there are higher chances of abuse and mistreatment. We need to brace ourselves for terrible issues because we will not know what happens behind these walls.

Even if the child and parent are together, this is still confinement and the family will not have freedom which will have an impact on the child as well as the caregiver.

Q. What can be done to protect these confined families?

A. If possible at all, psychological support must be provided in these ‘camps’. And it is important to make things predictable for children. A little stability is better than none.

It would be good if SOS Children’s Villages had an opportunity to do this, because we know how to provide support and create child-friendly spaces. We have programmes for caregivers to deal with this situation – this is our strength. In Tartous and Aleppo, in Syria, we have very good examples of how this works. Parents need skills to handle the emotional stress and this makes a huge difference for the child.

Teresa Ngigi is currently in Syria and will be traveling to Somalia next. She has worked for SOS Children’s Villages since 2016, providing support to alternative care programmes and emergencies.