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Supporting Children and Parents Affected by the Trauma of Separation

Author(s): Jessica Dym Bartlett; Maria A. Ramos-Olazagasti

Publication date: Jun 2018

Doc type: Brief

This is a joint publication from Child Trends and the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families.

More than 2,300 children have recently suffered the traumatic experience of being forcibly separated from their parents at the United States border. While the president has issued an Executive Order to end the practice of separating children from their parents, we call attention to the critical need that still exists: to support immigrant families who have been negatively affected by the trauma of separation, and who will likely continue to experience considerable adversity in the future, even if reunited with their loved ones.

As public officials and communities turn to reuniting and supporting immigrant children and parents, they face the difficult but essential task of helping these families cope with and recover from trauma caused by separation, detention, and fear of deportation. To respond to the well-documented negative consequences of forcible separation, we offer the following research-based guidance for parents, service providers, communities, and policymakers:

Research shows that children can recover and thrive after experiencing a traumatic event such as forcible separation. A strong and growing evidence base indicates that trauma-informed care (TIC) can promote resilience among children and families who experience traumatic events or circumstances.

TIC is an approach to working with children and adults that includes:

  • Understanding the impact of trauma and evidence-based trauma treatment and services
  • Recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma
  • Integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices
  • Actively seeking to avoid re-traumatization

However, providing TIC to immigrant families will require concerted and coordinated efforts by parents, schools, service providers, communities, and policymakers.

Parents, educators, mental health providers, and other adults who come into contact with immigrant families separated through border detention or deportation can provide effective care by understanding and responding to children’s age-related needs and reactions to trauma. For example, adults can help very young children by maintaining regular feeding, eating, and sleeping routines; showing physical affection; and showing patience if the child cries excessively, regresses, develops severe separation anxiety, or exhibits difficulty with self-regulation—all natural responses to early childhood trauma. Most importantly, adults can buffer young children from the adverse effects of this trauma by providing consistent, sensitive care that is responsive to their emotional and physical needs.

Older children and adolescents exposed to trauma also benefit from comfort and affection offered by trusted adults, reassurance of their safety, and the opportunity to talk about their experiences and worries when ready. They need adults to support them when they show post-traumatic stress symptoms such as irritability; withdrawal; aggression; difficulty concentrating, sleeping, and eating; or when they develop related physical symptoms (e.g., stomach ache). Older children and adolescents also need time to be with their peers. They need adults to listen to them in an empathetic way, without being judgmental, overprotective, or unrealistic about the future. It is important not to force adolescents to talk about what has happened to them before they are ready. Finally, the presence of a caring adult is still important at this age, even if adolescents don’t always show it.

Early care and education programs, schools, and communities can help children after they are separated from a parent by ensuring that children and their families have access to services that help them meet their basic needs (e.g., food, shelter, clothing), and by addressing the consequences of trauma. Specifically, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network suggests:

  • Regularly screening children for exposure to trauma and post-traumatic stress symptoms
  • Providing evidence-based, culturally responsive assessment and treatment for post-traumatic stress and related mental health problems
  • Ensuring that resources are available on trauma, its impact, and appropriate treatment
  • Focusing on strengthening protective factors (e.g., a caregiver who is psychologically healthy and responsive to a child’s needs; strong social connections, concrete supports) that support resilience in children and families affected by trauma
  • Addressing the traumatic experiences of parents and caregivers and their effects on the family
  • Establishing and maintaining continuity of care and collaboration among services and systems
  • Establishing environments that address secondary traumatic stress among service providers who care for children and families exposed to trauma

Finally, policymakers play a critical role in healing children and parents who have experienced the trauma of separation and detention. Policymakers can take the following actions:

Remove barriers that prevent immigrant families from accessing basic social safety net programs, and address “spillover effects” of current immigration policies for the broader Latino community (e.g., discrimination, limited access to support services).

About the Authors

Jessica Dym Bartlett, MSW, PhD, is a Deputy Program Area Director in Early Childhood Development & Child Welfare at Child Trends. Her research focuses on early childhood adversities, with a focus on identifying individual, family, and contextual factors that contribute to resilience among young children and their families. Dr. Bartlett worked for over a decade as a child and family psychotherapist, early childhood mental health consultant, and adoption placement worker for abused and neglected children.

Maria A. Ramos-Olazagasti, PhD, is a co-investigator of the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families and a research scientist at Child Trends. Her research explores the ways in which social position (or minority status) and social context influence the well-being of Latino families and youth in the United States and elsewhere.

About the Center

The National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families is a hub of research to help programs and policy better serve low-income Hispanics across three priority areas—poverty reduction and economic self-sufficiency, healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood, and early care and education. The Center was established in 2013 by a five-year cooperative agreement from the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation within the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to Child Trends in partnership with Abt Associates and New York University, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and University of Maryland, College Park. This publication was made possible by Grant Number 90PH0025 from OPRE. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of OPRE, ACF, or HHS.