Statement by Center Director Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D. on Separation of Families

The policy of separating families is a critical issue that transcends political ideology and partisanship and speaks to the heart of what the mission of the Center on the Developing Child is all about. 

June 20, 2018

Two critical concepts at the core of our understanding of early childhood development stand out from decades of scientific research. First, healthy brain development in babies and young children requires the consistent availability of a stable, responsive, and supportive relationship with at least one parent or primary caregiver. Second, high and persistent levels of stress can disrupt the architecture of the developing brain and other biological systems, with serious negative impacts on learning, behavior, and lifelong physical and mental health.

Sudden, forcible separation of children from their parents is deeply traumatic for both. Above and beyond the visible distress “on the outside,” this overwhelming experience triggers a massive biological stress response inside the child, which remains activated until that familiar caregiver returns. Even more important, continuing separation removes the most important resource a child can possibly have to buffer the effects of toxic stress—a responsive adult who’s totally devoted to that child’s well-being. Stated simply, each day we fail to return these children to their parents, we compound the harm and increase its lifelong consequences.

There are multiple ways to mitigate this potential damage, but the best thing we could do for the children who have been separated from their parents at the border is to reunite them immediately. If children were being fed poison and someone asked, “What’s the best treatment?”, the best answer is not to come up with an antidote. The solution is to stop poisoning them in the first place.

Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D.
Founding Director
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

Resources Related to Family Separation

Toxic stress

Child maltreatment and neglect

Media Coverage of Family Separation

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