Separation and a Child’s Brain

  • By Ari Daniel
  • Posted 06.27.18
  • NOVA

In May and June of 2018, over 2,000 migrant children were forcibly separated from their parents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border following the announcement of President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy. The separations may have long-term health implications, stemming from psychological and social trauma. What exactly happens in the brain of the child during separation, and is it possible to ever recover?

Running Time: 03:19


Separation and Children’s Brains

Published June 27, 2018

Onscreen: When children are separated from their parents, what happens to the brain of the child?

Karlen Lyons-Ruth: Even very brief separations are stressful to infants and young children.

Onscreen: In the first few minutes…

Lyons-Ruth: Our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and impels us to try to cope with this separation by calling for the parent, crying, getting upset, signaling that we need the parent back to be our source of security and safety and regulation.

Onscreen: Then comes a flood of cortisol (a stress hormone), which can trigger fight or flight. But prolonged exposure can be harmful.

Lyons-Ruth: It begins to damage brain cells. Hippocampal cells will die, that's our memory center. The electrical activity in the brain is being reduced by these more prolonged separations.

Robin Deutsch: The other thing that's affected in the brain is the amygdala. It's the fight or flight center­­­. So when you've got this really overactive amygdala, the ability to be able to evaluate risk, make good decisions is compromised. Not only does it affect the architecture of the brain but long term it affects health and early death.

Onscreen: One key to healthy brain development is “attachment,” building a strong bond with a reliable, consistent caregiver.

Lyons-Ruth: It's the foundation on which we build our exploration and our autonomy and our curiosity and the cognitive skills with which we're going to negotiate the world. It's a very fundamental system to protect and it's foundational to many of the child's developmental achievements.

Time is very important when you're dealing with very young children because you begin to see this deterioration fairly quickly. The idea that you're going to hold a young child away from the parent for a week or two weeks or three weeks is an enormity of time for a young child. They just know that the parent is absent and that can be equivalent to the parent basically being dead or having abandoned them.

Onscreen: Kids who don't form a strong, lasting bond with an adult by age two are more likely to have a disrupted attachment system.

Lyons-Ruth: One of the things we see in children reared in institutions in the first two years of life is that the attachment system goes badly awry.

Deutsch: Ultimately that relationship with the caregiver predicts the kind of interpersonal relationships that the child will have as they get older.

Onscreen: A dependable caregiver is important for building trust. An undependable caregiver can make trusting others hard. Once a separation happens, reuniting child and parent ASAP…

Lyons-Ruth: …is very important if we want to prevent later very problematic outcomes for these kids. The younger the child, the more urgent it is.

Deutsch: Recovery is certainly possible. But I think the prognosis for most of these children is they're not going to be okay.



Digital Producer
Ari Daniel
Production Assistance
Fatima Husain & Aparna Nathan
Editorial Review
Julia Cort
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2018




(main image: old and young hand)

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