Separating children and parents at the border causes lifelong damage

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

There is an important scientific fact that we need to be aware of as the political drama at the border unfolds: when children are separated from their parents, they can be damaged for the rest of their lives.

Research shows that when children face strong, frequent, or prolonged adversity without adequate support from adults, it causes a stress response that can have terrible consequences. This “toxic stress” affects both the mind and the body.

It disrupts normal brain development, leading to not just emotional problems, but problems with thinking and learning. Children who are exposed to toxic stress have a higher risk of depression and substance abuse. They are more likely to drop out of school, engage in risky behaviors, and commit suicide.

The health risks are serious as well. When the physical stress response of the body — the “flight or fight” response — is turned on for prolonged periods of time, it causes damage to body organs. Children who are exposed to toxic stress have a higher risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and lung disease, among other problems — and are more likely to die early.

The earlier in life the stress starts, the worse it is for children. Not only are young children more fragile, their brains are still developing. In order for young brains to develop normally, they need ongoing nurturing interactions with adults, something called “serve and return.” When these interactions don’t happen, it can literally and permanently change the architecture of the brain. The damage can be devastating, and it can’t be undone.

Remember, these are children who have already endured toxic stress — not just the stress of the journey to our border, but the poverty or violence or both that caused their parents to make the journey. They need us to help when they arrive, not make things worse.

Taking children away from their parents at the border and putting them into detention centers or foster care isn’t just sad. It can cause harm that lasts forever, even if they are ultimately reunited with their parents. It can change their future — and shorten their lives. That goes beyond sad: it is cruel.

It is clearly wrong to use children as pawns in any battle, especially a political one. But what is happening at the border goes beyond using children as pawns. The science is clear. We are literally ruining their lives. And the only reason we seem to be doing it is to make a point.

This is more than wrong. It’s unconscionable.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire


  1. Darlean Shollenberger

    It appears to me that the Democrats want illegal aliens in our country to do the work that they say Americans will not do. Is that like the days when we brought in slaves to pick the cotton that the White Man would not do. I believe back then, that was called slavery. So, I guess if we pay these illegals low wages that makes it a little better than slavery?? Wow, we have come a long way haven’t we? Illegal Mexicans… the new American SLAVES!

  2. LM Pirro Psychotherapist/Professor Advanced Clinical Practice Columbia

    Dr. McCarthy:
    Spot on. An integrated perspective. Facts not fiction. Thank you. Perfect forum.

  3. Craig c

    Everyone has been saying for years that actions have if you sneak in to our country the outcome may not be what you think it should be..single military moms and dads get separated from their children all the time in duty for their country .while some choose to run from their country and think America is just going to take care of them and act as if we don’t care enough about our country to just let anyone in..well the democrats certainly do not care about American citizens as 13 million American go to bed hungry each night and where is the outrage for them .or for American kids being slaughtered nightly in Chicago or any other town in the your fake outrage for your pillow at night and go gently to sleep so you can wake up refreshed and chose new people to be outraged about today..

  4. Jack Rogers

    Thanks for a clear, brief professional analysis of the horrors of this policy. I am an old man; I have no kids; but that doesn’t mean I’m not sickened by what I see and hear. I’m also a very ashamed American. I want to protest.

    So from now on I will turn on the flashers on my car whenever I’m driving as a statement of my protest. Maybe your readers will do the same. Maybe a general strike would be more effective but at least this makes protest visible.

    Do you know anyone who can help promote this protest?

  5. John Hobson MD

    Your comments are partisan in nature. No one doubts that separating families is stressful. Ask the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, slavery in any form, incarcerating mothers who are felons.etc. Does DayCare count? Nothing new here.

    If you want to write a political article about the American southern boarder, find a political blog. You have many outlets at Harvard to express your concern and present your comments. The issue at hand is a political one that to some is ” Hitler” like and others a “Wag the Dog” news story.
    Please use another venue for this

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