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.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University
Resources Related to Family Separation
- Key Concept: Quick facts about toxic stress
- Video: Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development
- InBrief: The Impact of Early Adversity on Children’s Development
- Report: Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain
- External Resource: Separating Children From Their Families: Toxic Stress and Adverse Childhood Experiences – Articles
Child maltreatment and neglect
- Deep Dive: Quick facts about neglect
- Video: The Science of Neglect
- InBrief: The Science of Neglect
- Report: The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain
Media Coverage of Family Separation
- Quartz: The damage the US government is doing to 12,000 kids
- PBS NewsHour: More migrant kids held in mass shelters, AP investigation finds
- TribTalk (Texas Tribune): Separated families and the urgency of the ticking clock
- U.S. News & World Report: Keeping Migrant Kids in Detention Centers and Shelters Can Damage Them
- Deseret News: When a child is traumatized, this one thing helps their recovery the most
- The Christian Science Monitor: After family separation: How to promote healing for migrant children?
- PRI’s The World, WGBH, and The Forum at T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Live Q&A: Crisis at the Border (video)
- PRI’s The World: Discussion: What trauma are separated migrant children now dealing with?
- Duluth News Tribune: Local View: All state-sponsored family separations are catastrophic moral disasters
- Spectrum: Viewpoint: How separating children from parents causes irreparable harm
- NBC Nightly News: Experts warn of emotional toll on migrant children as families reunite
- The Hechinger Report: How trauma and stress affect a child’s brain development
- Quartz: “The only buffer you have is a parent. Take that away, and everything falls apart.”
- The Wall Street Journal: The Effects of Parental Separation on Children (subscription required)
- BBC News: The health impacts of separating migrant children from parents
- ABC News: What to know about the negative health effects of separating kids and parents
- Washington Post: What separation from parents does to children: ‘The effect is catastrophic’
- PBS NewsHour: How the toxic stress of family separation can harm a child
- BuzzFeed: Immigrant Children Who Are Forcibly Separated From Their Parents Face Long-Term Trauma
- Morning Consult: Opinion: It’s Not Over If and When It’s Over
- The Brookings Institution: The enormous cost of toxic stress: Repairing damage to refugee and separated children
- More media coverage