Experts warn that migrant children forcibly separated from their parents at the southern border are facing the kind of stress that could result in short- and long-term psychological and physiological damage.

Migrant Child and Border Control Agent
Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

Today, Americans will wake up to more photographs of children sleeping in cages, covered by sheets of foil that are meant to be used as blankets. We'll see headlines about breastfeeding babies being forcibly taken from their mothers. We'll hear the heartbreaking audio, originally published by ProPublica, of children crying for their parents and an unidentified man believed to be a Border Patrol agent making a joke in Spanish about the little ones' sobs. And we'll have no choice but to face the fact that this is happening on our own soil, as the result of a new immigration strategy being enforced by the Trump administration.

In April, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered prosecutors along the border to "adopt immediately a zero tolerance policy" for illegal border crossings. Sessions has described the strategy—which White House officials confirm involves separating all families who cross the border—as a deterrent. The U.S. is prosecuting parents who are traveling with their children, as well as people who subsequently attempted to request asylum, NPR reports. In turn, from May 5 to June 9, 2,342 children have been separated from their parents after crossing the Southern U.S. border, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Carlos Moctezuma García, an immigration attorney currently working with Texas Civil Rights Project, has been interviewing 35 parents who've been separated from 39 kids.

"Detaining children and their parents in family detention is barbaric," García tells "This is worse. This is unprecedented. One mother told me that her child screamed and yelled when she was being taken away. I could see the pain in the woman's eyes. A look of desperation. She tried hard not to cry, because she was trying to tell me her story. ... I kissed my kids goodbye in the morning and went to talk to parents who'd had their kids taken from them. The men and women were in chains while they talked to me. They looked defeated. They looked in shock. They looked sad. I was sad. They asked me where their kids were. I didn't know."

How the zero tolerance policy is affecting children's health

Chief among the many haunting, horrifying effects of this policy is how it will impact children's well-being. As Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who was denied entry earlier this month to children's shelter, stated in a report from the AP, "Those kids inside who have been separated from their parents are already being traumatized. It doesn't matter whether the floor is swept and the bedsheets tucked in tight."

In addition to the terror induced by being taken from their parents at the border, many of these migrant children are seeking political asylum after escaping violent situations in their country of origin, explains Heather Larkin, Ph.D., an associate professor in Social Welfare at the University at Albany and co-director of the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services. For that reason, the detrimental physiological and psychological effects of separation from their parent is only compounding an already traumatic situation.

The high stress these children are facing, before and after being separated from their family, when they will lack "the buffering protection of a parent," could have a devastating impact on their developing brains and short- and long-term health, notes Julie M. Linton, M.D., FAAP, co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Immigrant Health Special Interest Group and a pediatrician in North Carolina.

"They may have changes in their bodily function, which may look like toileting difficulty, bed-wetting or children soiling themselves," Dr. Linton shares. "They may have eating problems or sleeping problems, changes in their behavior—they may be anxious or depressed or numb or detached or have exaggerated responses. So, someone drops a pen, and they jump, more than you would expect a typical kid to react. They may have changes in their learning or development, difficulty with memory or organization, or regression with their milestones, so trouble with speech development and language."

Various groups, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association have all released statements expressing their concern. "I've never been in this situation where I've felt so needlessly helpless," Colleen Kraft, M.D., FAAP, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told CNN. "This is something that was inflicted on this child by the government, and really is nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse." And the U.N. called the separation of families "a serious violation of the rights of the child."

More than 100 of the children detained are under the age of 4, ProPublica reported on June 18. Referrals of young children have risen “exponentially” since the “zero tolerance” policy was announced, Elizabeth Frankel, associate director of The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, told the New York Times. The center pairs migrant children with adults who act as guardians until the children are reunited with parents.

Frankel explained that she and her colleagues have been charged with caring for “a number of infants,” including some as young as 8 and 10 months. “They’re in crisis. They’re just crying uncontrollably,” she said. “We’ve seen young kids having panic attacks, they can’t sleep, they’re wetting the bed. They regress developmentally, where they may have been verbal but now they can no longer talk.”

Child psychologist Jenny C. Yip, Psy.D., ABPP, founder of LA-based The Renewed Freedom Center, explains just how traumatizing separation is for young children, especially. "You are very fragile psychologically, emotionally, physically," she notes. "Your whole world is dependent upon the adult figures that you feel safe with, the attachment you have to your parents or your primary caregivers."

She describes the immediate effects of this systemic traumatization on young children as feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and hypervigilance of their surroundings, because "their fight-or-flight response is driven so high and their brain is in alarm mode, so they are constantly surveilling their environment for dangers."

In addition, this constant state of distress compromises the immune system, rendering children defenseless to a whole host of potential diseases, Dr. Yip points out.

The downstream effect of toxic stress

Accumulated early adversities, or adverse childhood experience (ACE), have a debilitating impact on children's brain growth and development. Chronic, intense stress—referred to by researchers as toxic stress—has the same effect. A study published in the journal Pediatrics notes that "toxic stress can result from strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship."

Dr. Kraft also described toxic stress to NPR: "As little babies, we connect with that caring parent who helps us through our concerns with feeding and sleeping and helps us calm down when we're upset. And for little children, what stress does is it increases their stress fight or flight hormones so epinephrine, cortisol, norepinephrine. And what we know is that in the absence of that loving caregiver, these stress hormones become toxic to these kids. And in fact, this is called toxic stress."

Pediatrics researchers note that toxic stress disrupts brain circuitry and other organ and metabolic systems during sensitive developmental periods, which can result in "anatomic changes and/or physiologic dysregulations that are the precursors of later impairments in learning and behavior as well as the roots of chronic, stress-related physical and mental illness."

They also explain that "toxic stress in young children can lead to less outwardly visible yet permanent changes in brain structure and function." This is attributed to persistently elevated levels of those stress hormones mentioned by Dr. Kraft, which can lead to "functional differences in learning, memory, and aspects of executive functioning." Other related brain changes can lead to heightened anxiety, as well as impaired memory and mood control. "Thus, the developing architecture of the brain can be impaired in numerous ways that create a weak foundation for later learning, behavior, and health," the researchers note.

In terms of long-term physical effects, highly stressful experiences in childhood have been shown to be associated with problems like diabetes, depression, or heart disease, Dr. Linton says. "There's no safe time to be forcibly separated from a parent," she says. "All of these experiences are harmful to children."

How the policy is creating widespread fear

The situation at the southern border is undoubtedly devastating in and of itself, it bears noting that the zero tolerance policy and the threat of deportation and/or detention has widespread impacts on families, communities, and children regardless of immigration status, according to Joanna Dreby, an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany.

"Aside from children directly impacted by enforcement, are children who are indirectly impacted, a much wider group," Dr. Dreby says. "This includes a large number of U.S. citizen children, those living in mixed-status families and those who have even just one immigrant parent. These children describe fears of separation from their parents even in some cases when their parents have migrated legally. They also describe an increased sense of stigma related to their immigrant heritage and fears about possible teasing at school if friends learned of their immigrant heritage."

What you can do to help

Experts are imploring policy-makers to consider these fears, as well as the deeply disturbing short- and long-term psychological and physiological effects on children. But the heartbreaking truth is that through the Trump administration policy's systemic traumatization of migrant children, so much damage has already been done. It's not even a question that those affected will need targeted therapy and health care.

If you want to take action to support the health and well-being of migrant children, Dr. Linton advises supporting The Young Center or KIND (Kids In Need of Defense).

"Each of us has an opportunity and a responsibility to connect with local organizations that may be able to support children who are being released to communities across the country," she adds. "When children are taken into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, they are released and sponsored in communities all over the country. I would suggest people reach out to organizations that may be offering assistance or support to immigrant children to really help on the ground with healing the body and the mind of children who have been harmed by these policies. Every child needs medical and mental health support, and all children have a right to free public education, regardless of their immigration status, so making sure they're enrolled in school is critical."

Dr. Linton summarizes the crisis at hand: "We are a nation of immigrants, and we are country founded on values such as dignity, respect, and compassion. The policies that are currently being enacted are a rejection of core American values and a violation of the health and well-being of children."