Separating children from their parent or their caregiver is in the news a lot. For most people to take away a child from their parent doesn’t sound like a good idea, although the true impact is not well understood, unless one was removed from a parent as a child in a past life. The thing to remember is that a child usually has her or his primary attachment to a parent, needed ultimately for emotional and physical safety. Without it, the child cannot grow up and develop into a healthy adult. Breaking that bond is devastating.
As many child protection social workers can confirm, even if the parent was a harsh or an imperfect parent, removal of a child from that parent is a traumatic event for the child. Yes, an abused child may experience short-lived relief, knowing that there will be no more beatings or that s(he) doesn’t have to care for the incapacitated parent anymore, but the child often would trade the safety and adequate care of a foster home readily for the return to an abusive or neglectful parent, if given the choice. Attachment to its parent is the reason for that. Attachment is a strong, life-giving bond, necessary for a baby’s survival.
Attachment to a mother starts as soon as the child is born, and many think it starts even before birth, when the foetus can hear the voice of its mother while developing inside her. After birth, physical closeness and responsive care from the mother form the basis of that attachment for the child, which means knowing physically who the mother is by smell and sound enhanced by being breastfed, and emotionally by being attended to for all of her or his needs. Emotional and physical safety must be provided from where a child can explore the world and grow. Not only the mother, others can join the circle of adults to whom a child can form secure attachments.
A child’s brain development depends on not having great spikes of adrenalin coursing through its system, and on spending its first months in a steady and quiet environment, but with enough stimulation and child-sensitive interaction with others to allow further development of its brain and its muscles. Children of abuse if being born addicted, or ill at a young age, have a disadvantage. Having spent time in hospital away from the tender care of a mother/father with alien and unhealthy chemicals wreaking havoc in the child will interfere with healthy growth. They cannot completely catch up later in life, as their central nervous system is already primed and developed greater sensitivity to the brain chemicals (caused by withdrawal from substances and/or the withdrawal from safe care). This condition can later manifest itself in behaviours, such as anxiety.
Not all separations are traumatic. Children of working mothers who leave the child behind to go to work are not necessarily detrimentally affected, as long as a second caring adult provides this sort of responsive and consistent care while the mother is at work. These children fare just as well as those of stay-at-home moms. A child can learn to attach to others quite easily with some preparation and a transition time. Although the number of adults a child can ultimately attach to is limited, the primary attachment can well be supplemented by attachment to other adults and children without causing emotional harm to the child.
This can work, as long as the child has the experience and can trust that the mother (or another person with whom the primary attachment is made) returns within a limited timeframe. It is important that in the meantime baby does not feel unsafe, or abandoned by the safe person of attachment, and all will be fine for baby. Baby should not work herself up into anxiety. Attachment to a primary person is like an elastic band that can be stretched, but not so far that it breaks.
In cases of child protection, all will be undertaken to prevent removal of a child from the person with whom the child has her primary attachment. If a removal looks unavoidable because of the dangerous situation the child lives in, the social workers look for another close relative who could possibly take the place of the primary caregiver/parent. Although far from ideal, it is better than the alternative: foster care.
If nobody is available and a child is placed with a total stranger, the child will experience anxiety with likely damage to her attachment–an attachment injury–within a really short time after the child feels abandoned. The younger the child, the less resilient s/he is for separation damage. If the child has siblings, the family group ideally should stay together to avoid more injuries through additional experiences of loss. Daily contact with the mother/father with whom the attachment is made is extremely important to assure the child s/he is not abandoned.
What harm will be caused if the safe person doesn’t come back at all?
Attachment injury can take many different forms and children express that extreme emotional injury–the worst psychological injury possible–in a great variety of dysfunctional or unexplained behaviours, even many years later. A child that has experienced abandonment and has an attachment injury has difficulty with trusting all adults, blames herself for being abandoned, and her self-image is diminished. She (or he) carries this injury into adulthood and it affects the development of the child, her (his) mental health, and all future relationships as an adult.
From the article of Inge Bretherton below: “Several attachment patterns were observed: Securely attached infants cried little and seemed content to explore in the presence of mother; insecurely attached infants cried frequently, even when held by their mothers, and explored little; and not-yet attached infants manifested no differential behavior to the mother.”
Attachment injury is often the underlying reason that adoptions break down and that foster homes give up caring for the child. In adulthood they cannot form intimate relationships, which may lead to a number of mental health issues, such as depression, development of personality disorders, displaced anger, substance use and addiction. The psychologist Bowlby (1975) discovered the importance of the attachment of a child to a primary caregiver and its consequences for their life as an adult. It led the psychologists and child development professionals away from psychotherapy and introduced attachment theory and developmental psychology. Inge Bretherton explained Bowlby’s theory in her article online, link attached.
In the USA, a patchwork system of private and public child organisations provides help to families who are confronted with an attachment-injured child. The American Academy of Child and Youth Psychiatry has a guide online to educate about the various forms of the disorder. The link below will take you there.
In Canada, the government’s child and youth mental health offices can be approached through a referral from your doctor. Suicide is a most prevalent result of attachment injury especially in adolescence, and it is the number one mental health issue for youth.
But not only for children. Many adults make it through life for many years, until the final straw that breaks the camel’s back lands. Depression. We have seen some startling examples of successful people who were in the public eye and still committed suicide. Life was no longer worth living. We do well to take up the conversation and educate ourselves, so we will not have to wonder: Did I do enough to stop it?
Now what about the children of refugees?
Many argue that their life is a dangerous trip already and that their parents expose them to much danger. That the parent is engaged in a criminal act (crossing borders illegally) and deserves to be separated from the child. To them I will say: the real danger of the trip is mitigated by the child’s protector. As long as their mother or father is there with them and protects them (or the auntie who fulfills that role), the children will be alright.
The real damage begins when the government removes them from the parent without preparation and without the assurance that the child will ever be reunited, and without continuing (daily) contact with their parent in any form. How cruel and criminal this latest US government policy is! It creates long-lasting detrimental results. It may be considered a war crime, had there be a war. Now it’s just a ZERO-Tolerance Government Policy. It breaks a child before it even has a chance at life. The rights of any refugee to apply for refugee status though an approved process should be protected and it exists also in the USA, even if its president is unaware of them or wants the break those laws and processes.
From Inge Bretherton’s article: “A good society, according to Marris, would be one which, as far as is humanly possible, minimizes disruptive events, protects each child’s experience of attachment from harm, and supports family coping.”
Where are the American psychological associations and the physicians in all of this? What do they think about treatment of refugees and the separation of thousands of children of refugees and unaccompanied minors held in the USA?