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  • Children can be surprisingly resilient, but few are likely to come through this experience at the border emotionally unscathed. Tweet This
  • For young children especially, an absent parent means almost certain death, at least to the developing brain of the child. Tweet This

Yesterday, President Trump signed an executive order that reverses his administration’s previous policy of separating undocumented immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border and outlines a policy to allow most detained families to stay together in detention centers "where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources" (read the full order here). In light of the national outcry over the family separation policy, we recently spoke with James A. Coan, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia, where he directs the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory and produces the Circle of Willis podcast. Dr. Coan discussed how the trauma of being forcibly separated from their parents could have long-term effects on these children’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

IFS: What social scientists call Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs)—from parental divorce to death—can traumatize children well into adulthood. The Trump administration’s policy of forcibly separating immigrant children from their parents would obviously be characterized as an ACE. Tell us something about ACEs and the kinds of events and situations that traumatize children.

James Coan: Adverse Childhood Experiences range from things like parental divorce (relatively common) to many forms of abuse and neglect (relatively rare). Their effects vary, and the data suggest that most children are resilient. But there does seem to be a cumulative effect—so the more of these traumas one experiences, the worse outcomes you can expect. Such outcomes include behavioral problems, anger, aggression, impulsivity, ADHD, depression, anxiety, and a number of physiological symptoms like heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune activity, etc. The age at which a trauma is experienced matters as well. The younger you are, the more devastating the trauma can be. More surprising to many people is the relative impact of neglect versus more active abuse. Of the two potential traumas, it looks increasingly like neglect is the most negatively impactful. Children need to be cared for and interacted with.

IFS: For the immigrant children who were separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s policy, how do you think the trauma of the separation may affect their emotional health, and their ability to trust, regulate their emotions, and deal with stress long term?

James Coan: Children can be surprisingly resilient, but few are likely to come through this experience at the border emotionally unscathed. In the short term, we have seen extreme emotional distress. This distress actually serves a life-saving function: keeping caregivers from going away. For young children, especially, an absent parent means almost certain death, at least to the developing brain of the child, whose entire world consists almost exclusively of their parents and close relatives. Those children have no understanding of our political moment, or even of the comings and goings of the neighbors down the block. So, their distress—their cries and protests—are an attempt to cause a reunion with the parent.

If that reunion fails, the kids must choose a different survival strategy, and it is a tragic one. It involves the assumption that the parents are gone, and the kid is now going to have to go it alone. This causes more rapid maturation— a maturation that happens of necessity without the benefit of the kind of developmental scaffolding that a parent can provide. This limits the child's behavioral repertoire to relatively fixed and impulsive reactions—like dive under the table when there is a loud noise, grab the other kid's toy when you want it (on the assumption you'll have no other access to it otherwise), forgo just about any long-term goal because short-term goals are overpoweringly compelling.

But the effects aren't limited to a relatively inflexible cognitive and behavioral repertoire. There is also the assumption that the world is inherently dangerous, which increases general sensitivity to potential threats and can cause other difficulties trusting and relating to others. This can amount to a lifetime of emotional misery.

IFS: What kind of physical consequences do children typically suffer from this kind of trauma?

James Coan: There are a number of documented physical consequences of trauma, especially early trauma. On the one hand, we simply know that these traumas are associated with increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and even some cancers. On the other hand, we're increasingly knowledgeable about the pathways through which early trauma can have these effects. The first major pathway concerns that relatively inflexible cognitive and behavioral repertoire I discussed earlier. This inflexibility extends to major life decisions and emotion-regulation capabilities, which may emphasize things like self-medicating or externalizing difficult emotions through self-destructive acts or violence. This is the "health behavior" pathway, that basically links cognitive and behavioral inflexibility to behaviors that have a negative effect on health.

The other major pathway is more direct—a kind of "weathering" of the body attributable to how the bodies of trauma victims often mount major physiological stress reactions to even relatively minor setbacks. This can erode the flexibility of the vascular system, overwhelm systems governing the release of circulating glucose, and even cause a kind of chronic, low-level inflammation—as if the body is locked in a perpetual battle with a minor infection. All aspects of the body's normative stress response are extremely valuable in the short term—inflammation is protective in a variety of ways, for example. But if chronic, they cause the body to neglect its "regular maintenance”—since resources are always being "spent" on the stress response—and, again, they just stress the various systems of the body out through that weathering I mentioned above.

IFS: Can you think of more humane ways for the federal government to dissuade citizens from other countries from crossing our borders illegally with their children?

James Coan: Well, I think there are two issues, and the media have not been doing a great job of disentangling them. (Perhaps they are simply too hard to disentangle.) On the one hand, you have parents arriving with their children between ports of entry illegally for whatever reason—fleeing hardship, seeking economic opportunity, whatever. On the other hand, you have parents seeking asylum legally at ports of entry. Right now, both kinds of parents are subject to this policy of arrest and separation. In at least some cases, you have parents actually fleeing levels of danger that make attempting entry into the U.S. seem perfectly reasonable, and perhaps—for parents worried about the future well-being of their children—even compulsory.

So, I'm not at all sure what, under those circumstances, a more humane way of dissuading parents from attempting to bring their children here would look like. I think, of course, that that's the point of this policy—to make what will happen here in the U.S. worse than what might happen back at home. And given conditions back at home, just about the only thing that could be worse is having your children forcibly removed from you. That, I think it is eminently reasonable to say, is indeed a form of torture. So, my first answer is simply to do anything other than what we are doing.

Other than that, probably the best option is to work with other governments, notably Mexico, to come up with other solutions that emphasize humanitarian aid of some sort. It is a vexing problem to be sure, and with climate change, it is very likely to get worse.

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.