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WHAT IS HAPPENING? An opinion on forced separations and reunification.

As images of parents and children being reunified emerge on TV and social media, many viewers seem to be struggling to make sense out of what they are seeing.

We observe parents, wracked with emotion, enveloping their child with the whole of their being, kissing them feverishly, up one side and down the other. Others bury their faces deep into the neck of their child and simply sob. While the behavior of these parents is varied in manner, the one constant is the overwhelming nature of their emotions.

In stark contrast is the behavior of their children. Not all, but too many stand stick still, hands to their sides, eyes staring into the distance. Some tuck their chin in and simply look down. The do not cry. They do not hug back. They appear emotionless, disconnected.


There are many on Facebook asking this question. Some offer answers, while others make judgements. Some are liked. Some are lambasted.

One such answer suggested that the child was unresponsive because the motives of the adult were nefarious. While depraved adults exist, it is more likely that what we are observing is a trauma response. I qualify my answer as likely because from my arm-chair position, I have not assessed these families. I do not know their history prior to this video. All I have is a simple video clip and my professional training and experience.

In the world of parents and children, the child’s sense of security is based on access to the parent. An accessible and responsive parent is imperative to the healthy physical and emotional growth of the child and has lasting affects into adulthood. In times of stress, access to the parent becomes even more critical. Accessible and responsive parents buffer children from the effects of stressful events — such as escaping one’s country and immigration.

In normal everyday life, children who become accidentally separated from a parent in a park or store cry. They and their parents show evidence of distress, even panic, until reunified. The experience may feel or even be described as traumatic but the recovery of the child is facilitated by the parent becoming accessible and responsively soothing and reassuring the child of their presence. In the short term, we may observe the child tending more closely to the whereabouts of their parent; but, there will be no long term emotional damage.

When children are forcibly separated from a parent, as under the US DOJ Zero Tolerance Policy, the result is trauma. The child in an already unfamiliar stressful situation now has no access to their parent.

Some ask how this is possible. “It was only two months,” they assert. “They had shelter, food, education, Xbox, basketball,” they continue. “They probably had more than they have ever had,” say others. There is one missing factor here and it is key: these children did not have access to their parent. It is as if they became lost in the store/park for not just minutes, but for hours, then days, then months.

But, it doesn’t take two months for trauma to happen. The experience of trauma can be instantaneous. By definition, emotional trauma may occur when there is the perception or experience of a situation in which there exists imminent danger to the self or the well-being of another. Children forcibly separated from their parent(s) have no access to the one being who can foster their sense of safety and security AND they do not know the safety or well-being of their parent — consequently, they are traumatized.

So, I proffer that what we are observing in these reunifications, the answer to — WHAT IS HAPPENING? — is a reflection of trauma from which some of these children may never recover.

The author is a licensed psychologist in the state of Maryland. She has worked in both the public and private mental health sectors serving children, teens, adults and families for twenty-eight years. She is a Certified Clinical Trauma Professional with the International Association of Trauma Professionals.

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