The Reality of Family Separation: Children, Trauma, and What We Do Next

As a leader in the prevention of child abuse and neglect in Northern Virginia, SCAN is dedicated to educating the community about the scope, nature, and consequences of child abuse and neglect. The separation of immigrant parents from their children after they have crossed the U.S. border “is a form of child abuse,” said Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. SCAN is deeply concerned about the traumatic experiences immigrant children and their families are enduring as a result of this separation and the lasting effects this will have on these children’s health and development.

Trauma occurs when a person is overwhelmed by events or circumstances and responds with intense fear, horror, and helplessness. Potentially traumatic events can include separation from a loved one, surviving a war zone or refugee experience, enduring abuse and neglect, exposure to violence, or the effects of poverty. Children’s exposure to traumatic events and prolonged stress due to trauma can damage the developing brain of a child and lead to negative health outcomes in adulthood such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. Traumatic experiences can also lead to difficulty learning, impaired memory, poor attachments, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, depression, and an inability to control physical response to stress.

While the potential harmful effects of trauma are serious and alarming, children can heal if they have safe, stable and nurturing support. Parents, family and supportive adults can help children heal by building their resiliency, or their ability to “bounce back” after negative experiences. Some ways to build resiliency in children include:

  1. Create a safe environment that meets children’s basic needs. This includes safe housing, nutritious food, appropriate clothing, access to good health care and education.
  2. Establish and maintain consistent routines to help children feel safe.
  3. Help children identify their feelings and manage emotions. Maintain open communication where fears and worries can be discussed openly.
  4. Build supportive social connections with friends, family, neighbors, or faith groups.
  5. Care for yourself. Parents and caregivers should model self-care and recognize and seek help to manage their own traumatic experiences.

Calls to Action—2 ways you can help immigrant children and families:

  • Volunteer with or donate to organizations directly serving the families involved in this crisis, such as the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), the largest immigration nonprofit in Texas that provides free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrants (https://www.raicestexas.org/); the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, which advocates for many of the separated and unaccompanied children (https://www.theyoungcenter.org/); or Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, which provides legal representation to low-income immigrants and families seeking reunification (http://las-americas.org/).
  • Educate yourself and your community on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Trauma using tools from SCAN’s Parent Resource Center.