Separating Immigrant Children at the US Border vs Parental Alienation

Families being separated at the US border is only the latest in a long history of people being torn apart from those they love the most. From war zones to asylum seekers, but also closer to home, our children who are alienated from one of their parents following divorce, we need to learn the lessons from history.

Immigrants to the US border and families in high conflict where children ‘choose’ to reject a parent on divorce have one thing in common – the trauma of separation is not one singular, traumatic event in the children’s lives. For children in families fleeing war or poverty and children who have been living in extremely conflicted family dynamics, childhood trauma is already part of their life experience. The bonds that exist between family support us in the face of adversity. Children who are separated from their parents, experience trauma that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

We know from mainstream psychological theory that children who have experienced trauma:

  • Develop problems forming relationships with adults, poor self-regulation, negative thinking and a hyper-sensitive fear response;
  • Learn to be wary of adults, even those who appear to be reliable, since they’ve been treated poorly or betrayed;
  • Have trouble managing strong emotions and develop the belief that what’s happened to them is their fault; and,
  • Think everyone is out to get them and become hyper-aware of perceived danger, leading to anxiety and chronic irritability.

We also know that the longer the separation, the more toxic stress the child experiences. If we quickly reconnect families at the US border but leave a child that has become alienated from a parent for years, this toxic stress is the invisible but unfortunate reality for that child. Toxic stress differs from standard stressors in life in that toxic stress is a stress in which the child is not ‘buffered’ by a parent to learn to rise to a challenge and win. Instead the child has to learn to live without that parent’s help, guidance and support, unendingly.

Toxic stress activates the body’s stress response, activating the threat system and engaging the amygdala. When we keep activating those circuits, so when a child is continually exposed to toxic stress in a war zone or in a high conflict household, these circuits become harder to shut off. Children are already especially not good at regulating their emotions but when separated from parents, these children are at further risk of psychological harm. Parental buffering, that is the help that parents provide to switch off those stress responses, is even more important to these children and the absence of this buffering leaves the child continually exposed to toxic stress pressures which will have a more enduring effect on their brain development, causing both short term and long-term consequences.

Even when children are reunified with their parents, there is a continued risk of harm for the child. The parent will have experienced his or her own stress responses and this can often lead to confusion and misunderstandings. The parent might well also still feel fearful and anxious, yet parents need to be able to feel safe to be able to usefully buffer their child’s emotions. The disruption at the family level that is caused by divorce can further increase the effects on the child.

We know the adverse effects of separating children from their parents, yet it is still happening even in places where there is no war or immigration – in our family courts. False allegations and brainwashed ‘wishes and feelings’ of the child cannot be allowed to continue to obstruct the emotional wellbeing of our children. The incoming Head of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has indicated that he is in favour of early intervention, to give clarity in terms of the expectations of time with both parents and to quickly respond where there are allegations of domestic abuse or alienation. We look forward to that day, but, in the meantime, alienated children need to be assessed by psychologists who can understand the underlying family dynamics, they need psychological support to be able to reconnect with their once loved parent and they are not served well by the current situation whereby often, even in leading High Court cases, we hear that you can’t force a teenager to physically live anywhere so we will just have to give up.

Research clearly shows the damage done to children who lose their caregivers, the impact on their development and the trauma that lives on in their bodies and minds and affects how they think, feel and respond to life events. There is nothing worse than when a child loses their innocent trust in the world around them. Every member of a family is harmed by forced separation, but it is children who suffer the most. We have a responsibility to take care of those who are most vulnerable and to ensure their wellbeing. At Cambridge Family Matters, we are dedicated to finding the most cost-effective route to helping alienated children, whilst we wait, and lobby, for a better system.

If you have any queries about alienation or no longer seeing your children, you can contact Belinda on 01223 355912 and discuss how best to try to remedy the situation, now.