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Judith L. Herman M.D.

Decoding Trauma

Separation from Parents Is

Harmful to Children
It's beyond dispute. Separation from parents is traumatic to
Posted Jun 19, 2018

It has come to this: Child abuse is now an official policy of the U.S.
federal government. I am speaking about the immigration policy known as Zero

Under Zero Tolerance, instituted in May 2018, families presenting at the

border without proper papers, including those following established protocol to
seek asylum, are charged as criminals. The parents are detained, and because
their children cannot legally be imprisoned with them, they are separated from
their parents and entrusted to the tender mercies of the Department
of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). These
are children as young as toddlers, literally taken from their parents by force.


The government assures us that there is no intent to harm these children.

They are merely the collateral damage of Zero Tolerance. How many children?
What has happened to them? Will they ever see their parents again? No one
knows for sure. ORR does not give out information about the numbers or
whereabouts of these children.

Source: PrazisImages/Shutterstock
Whether or not harm is intended, it is beyond dispute that separation from
parents and caregivers is traumatic to children. Numerous studies, beginning
with Anna Freud’s observations of children separated from their parents during
the London Blitz, attest to the long-term harms of separation. Most recently,
the well-known ACES survey, conducted jointly by the CDC and Kaiser
Permanente, documented the consequences to both physical and mental
health of what they named adverse childhood experiences. Along with physical
and sexual abuse, any prolonged separation from a parent in childhood–
whether because the parent was physically or mentally ill, or because the
parent was incarcerated–was powerfully related to many of the ten leading
causes of death: heart, lung, and liver disease, as well as alcoholism, drug
abuse, and suicide attempts.1

When hurt or frightened, children cry for their parents. The cry of a frightened
child has a powerful effect on mothers and other caretakers, who ordinarily
respond by enveloping the child in their arms. When the child’s separation cry
is not answered, fearmagnifies into terror. This is the attachmentsystem,
evolved for human survival, first described by John Bowlby,2 and since
confirmed by contemporary investigators. We are all hard-wired to seek the
embrace of familiar caretakers in response to danger. The reciprocal response
of caretakers, to comfort a frightened child, is equally hard-wired, as most
parents can attest. On the foundation of secure attachment is built our ability to
form trusting relationships and our basic sense of security in the world.


Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the

American Psychiatric Association have condemned this policy. According to a
statement by Altha Stewart, M.D., President of the American Psychiatric
Association, “Children depend on their parents for safety and support. Any
forced separation is highly stressful for children and can cause lifelong trauma,
as well as an increased risk of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety,
and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The United Nations human rights office has called for an immediate halt to the
practice of separating children from migrant families, calling it a “serious
violation of the rights of the child.” (The United States is the only country in the
world that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.)

Zero Tolerance is a policy that will harm its perpetrators as well as its victims.
This is a classic example of what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton famously called
an “atrocity-producing situation.”3 Members of the border patrol who tear crying
children from the arms of their parents may themselves suffer lasting
consequences. The rationalization of “following orders” will not help. Long-term
follow-up studies of Vietnam War veterans find that some of the most severe
and persistent cases of posttraumatic stress disorder occur among soldiers
who harmed civilians or prisoners.4 Children taken from their parents are both
civilians and prisoners.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class-action lawsuit in federal
court, calling for an immediate halt to this policy and for the reunification of
families. Mental health professionals, who understand the harms inflicted by
separating children from their families, should similarly call for an immediate
end to the policy of Zero Tolerance.


1 Felitti, VJ, Anda RF, Nordenberg D, Williamson DF, Spitz AM, et. al. (1998).
Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the
leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)
Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14: 245-258.

2 Bowlby, J (1969): Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic
Books. 3 Lifton, RJ (1973): Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans: Neither
Victims nor Executioners. NY: Simon & Schuster.

4 Dohrenwend BP, Yager TJ, Wall MM, & Adams BG (2013): The roles of
combat exposure, personal vulnerability, and involvement in harm to civilians
or prisoners in Vietnam War −related posttraumatic stress disorder. Clinical
Psychological Science published online 15 February 2013 DOI: