Two hands reaching out to one another

The stress of separation

What research tells us about the impact of separating children and families

In summer 2018, the U.S. government instituted a policy to separate children and parents seeking asylum or trying to enter the United States illegally. Under previous policies, families generally were allowed to stay together in detention centers or were released until their immigration court date.

The policy received widespread media coverage, and early childhood experts from a variety of fields participated in the national conversation, drawing on their research and established child development concepts to highlight how the policy could negatively impact children now and into the future.

Megan Gunnar
Megan Gunnar

One of those experts was Megan Gunnar, Regents Professor of Child Development and director of the Institute of Child Development (ICD).

At ICD, Gunnar leads the Human Developmental Psychobiology Lab, which is dedicated to understanding the complex set of experiences that allow children to thrive as they prepare for adulthood. Specifically, Gunnar studies the effects of stress on children’s development and how parent–child relations can regulate the stress children experience. According to her findings, the most powerful way to protect children from the effects of trauma—both physically and mentally—is the presence and availability of their parents.

This fall Gunnar discussed her research and what it tells us about why separating children and families can take a toll on a child’s social, emotional, and physical development. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How does your research relate to the issue of family separation?

The most potent and powerful stress that a child can experience is the stress of separation. Children experience many acute stressors that activate stress biology. We use this all the time as a way of activating stress biology. For example, going to daycare is stressful until you adapt to it, but that doesn’t necessarily harm a child. However, separation, if you have no idea if you’re going to be able to get back to your parent, is an extremely powerful stressor. Separation where no one person is really taking care of you once you’ve been separated, and you’re being cared for in an institution—that’s about as intense of a situation as you can devise. And I say that in terms of both behavior and physiology.

Why is it the most powerful stressor?

It’s the one that activates the biological system of stress in the most powerful way that we know of. We know from studies about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children that, if they are in an accident, how they recover depends more on whether their parent is able to resume being a parent, or if their parent is badly hurt. Children evolve to live in the context of relationships with one or a few close adults. Stripping that away from them strips many of their abilities to cope and interact with the world.

What are the key development science concepts that underpin what we know about how child separation impacts children?

The understanding of how powerful and important relationships are to children is grounded in our understanding of what we now call attachment theory. In order for young children to survive, they need to have an adult taking care of them. Throughout our evolution, we’ve developed patterns of behavior that keep us close to the adults who are going to take care of us. We begin to see these operating powerfully at the point when a child can crawl away and leave their parent. It’s about that time in development when parents notice that their baby starts crying when they leave the room. Another example is if a child is traveling away from their parent, like on a playground, and there’s a sonic boom, they will return to the parent. We describe that as secure attachment. The parent becomes the child’s secure base from which they can explore their environment.

Are there any other development concepts that come to play here?

Another one that is related to attachment theory is the idea of self-regulation. Children need to regulate their own emotions and behavior, and they often do that using the parent as a source of guidance. With a baby, the parent is integrated into their regulatory system. As children get older, they become better capable of independently regulating themselves. Even now as an adult, if something really stresses you, if you have a good relationship with your parents, you may well pick up the phone and call them. Just hearing their voices helps you feel calmer. It never quite goes away. We use those close relationships as a way to regulate ourselves, and we especially need those close relationships when we’re scared, distressed, and uncertain. Not only is the separation activating and creating a threat for children, but the lack of being able to contact their parent is reducing a child’s ability to activate their own self-regulation capacities.

Children and families are still being reunited. What does science tell us about how children might behave when reunified with their families?

Msultiple things will influence this. The child’s age will matter a lot. If a child is 4, 5, 6, or 7 years old, they won’t understand why their parent hasn’t come and gotten them. By separating them, we’ve threatened the trust between a parent and child. What we would expect from children is that they won’t let their parents out of their sight and that they might have easy meltdowns. Older children and teenagers, on the other hand, might have a better understanding of the situation.

How can we help children who have been separated from their families overcome their traumatic experiences, so they are successful?

How the parent negotiates the situation, for example, how able they are to stay calm, will affect how it ultimately plays out. Humans are fairly resilient. For many of the children, it probably will be OK, but some who have genetic predispositions will suffer from anxiety and PTSD. Individual differences in temperament come into play here—if a child is more anxious or bold or emotionally reactive—all of those things go into how a child potentially manages the situation. But none of it overrides not being able to be with your parents.

As a researcher, why did you feel it was important to contribute to the national conversation around this issue? 

This was a situation where we had enormous amounts of evidence to speak out about what was happening. It was not political—we had a lot of information on why the policy was problematic. There was a body of evidence. Because of that, I could not imagine not speaking out. The developmental science field spoke with one voice on this issue.

Learn more about Megan Gunnar and her research, including stress neurobiology and development, in the Institute of Child Development.

Story by Cassandra Francisco | Shutterstock | Winter 2019