Family Separation: Learn how it can affect everyone in the family
All over the world, children are separated from their parents daily. Some got to live with relatives, some live in foster care, and some remain parentless. No child likes to be separated from their parents and when they are, they can be greatly affected both physically and mentally. What is family separation, though? How is family separation linked to anxiety disorder? How does it affect the mother, the father, siblings, and the child respectively? What are the tips to help make family separation easier?
What is family separation?
The official definition of separation, according to the Oxford Dictionary is, “the action or state of moving or being spread apart”. Simply put, family separation is the action of a family being separated or moved apart. Family separation happens all the time whether it be from divorce, safety, such as the Holocaust, or the death of a parent. Family separation affects everyone in the family: the mother, the father, and the kids as siblings and as individuals.
Family separation and anxiety disorder
Children naturally feel separation anxiety throughout their childhood. Grade-schoolers to teenagers can suffer from separation anxiety which is simply the extreme fear of being separated or being without the parent/caregiver. Children are sensitive to how their parents feel and having a family member close to them that experiences depression or anxiety can be a huge risk factor for anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders are commonly caused by both environmental factors and genetics. When families are separated, both parties- the parental figures and the children- are more likely to experience anxiety disorders due to the stress of being separated.
Common symptoms of anxiety disorder in family separation:
- Sleeping along. The child has trouble falling asleep at night alone
- Tantrums. The child has tantrums that are too much for his age group. Essentially, a 5, 6, or 7-year-old child that has tantrums is a sign that they are going through a lot of distress and can’t communicate it with words, so they use tantrums instead.
- Physical pains. The child often complains of physical pain such as stomach aches, back pain, or headaches. These are signs that are attributed to anxiety and stress. However, they can also be signs of another, more serious medical condition.
- Resisting. The child doesn’t want to go to school, play dates, or camp without the parent or caregiver present with them.
Family separation: parents from children
There is lots of research on how family separation affects children, but there is less research and studies on how family separation affects the parents.
Parent’s are essential to a child’s survival and take part in the fundamental human need for attachment. This is so essential to our brain development and survival that humans evolved a neurobiological system that promotes close parent-child bonding. Years and years of research prove that disrupting that natural process causes substantial risks to a parent’s wellbeing as well as the child’s wellbeing.
Family separation has lasting effects that are caused by toxic stress. Toxic stress is what happens when a child experiences strong neglect, abuse, exposure to violence, and they don’t have an adult around them to support them or calm them down. When a child is torn away and separated from their parent, both the child’s’ and the parents’ bodies go into fight-or-flight mode. This means that the body releases stress hormones and it prepares itself for danger. Chronic family separation can change how the body responds to stress over time.
How family separation affects the mother
A study by the University of Georgia was conducted to figure out how separation anxiety and motherhood go together. It was found that mothers feel higher levels of separation anxiety when their babies are sick, with colic, for example. A mother and her child are biologically connected.
Many children are breastfed- more often in poorer countries. When babies are breastfed, they typically rely on milk longer than if they are bottle fed. Some even when they are toddlers. For example, in Honduras, 43% of 2-year-olds are breastfed. If a child is breastfed and they are separated from their mother, both parties are greatly affected. Science has proven that breastfeeding creates a strong bond between mother and child. However, in addition to providing the necessary nutrition and bond between mother and child, breastfeeding also has a calming factor to any major stressors that babies face and provides higher intelligence levels. Long-term, breastfeeding provides many benefits. When it comes to family separation, a child who has been exclusively breastfed might refuse to be bottle fed or not eat formula at all. When lactating mothers aren’t able to give their child milk or release their milk, their bodies might stop producing milk altogether.
How family separation affects the father
When children and parents are separated, it’s easier to cope with the separation when there is some level of routines, patterns, and predictability. For example, when the parent is in the military or is incarcerated. Forceful separation, however, is worse because parents feel desperate to get their child back. A parent usually begins to feel grief. People become frozen in their grief because they know their kid is out there, but they can’t get to them.
Fathers can feel the same amount of distress as mothers when it comes to how bonded they are with their child when they are separated. Mother’s releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone, during birth and while breastfeeding. Considering that men don’t give birth or breastfeed, there are rumors that men aren’t as bonded to the baby naturally as women are. That’s a false rumor. Once babies are born, fathers, too, experience a rise in oxytocin that is equal to that of the mothers. This means that fathers will feel a similar experience when being separated from their child as the mother.
Family separation: children from parents
How family separation affects the siblings
Roughly, about 2/3 of kids in out-of-home care (such as foster care) have siblings. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of evidence that sibling relationships are important and can cause a powerful influence on each other when they are separated. Siblings provide support, nurturing, can be role models, and help provide at least some family structure. During divorces, the family separation usually causes a break in parental support and sibling bonds and support are sometimes the only structure kids have.
When siblings are separated due to whatever reason and neither sibling has a good family structure to support them nor their brother or sister, it’s incredibly difficult and has been proven to cause problems such as depression and anxiety both short-term and long-term. They can also feel a loss of identity, grief, and trauma.
How family separation affects the child
When first separated, heart rates go up and stress hormones are released (cortisol and adrenaline). Those hormones kill dendrites. Dendrites are the little branches within the brain that help transmit messages within the brain. With time, the high amount of stress begins to kill off neurons which cause severe damage to the physical and psychological brain structure. One study found that family separation that begins at an early age causes a lower amount of white matter development which is the matter that helps transmit messages in the brain. It also found that the brain begins to have less gray matter which is what helps process information correctly and solves problems. Brain activity also goes down. If the brain is a light bulb, think that the normal child brain is a 100-watt bulb while the child who felt family separation is only a 30-watt bulb. Their brains are figuratively dimmed.
It’s been found that in a Chinese village where 1 in every 5 kids lives parentless because their parents are migrating for work, the kids who are “left-behind” have incredibly higher rates of depression and anxiety later in life. Aboriginal children in Australia who were taken from their parents were found to have long-lasting negative effects such as being arrested or criminally charged (as adults). They were also more than twice as likely to struggle with gambling and 60% more likely to have problems with alcohol abuse.
A teenager separated from their family for a long period of time might be able to get over it eventually because their brain will have developed enough. However, young children are the most vulnerable when it comes to family separation. A teeny-tiny baby might not remember the family separation, but they are the ones who are most affected by it in the long term. This is because a child’s brain is quite plastic and flexible the younger it is. This can be good if taken advantage of. For example, it’s easier for children to become bilingual than an adult because the more our brains age, the harder it is for us to input lots of new information and reshape the brain. This is due to neuroplasticity, which is better when we are younger but we can help improve it with platforms such as CogniFit.
This can also be bad if the child has bad childhood experiences that shape their long-term physiology and biology. A well-done study shows that exposure to traumatic events in childhood, such as family separation, is intensely correlated to an increase in drug addiction, depression, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, liver disease, and suicide attempts.
Children who don’t have direct parental care and grow up in places with institutionalized care, such as an orphanage, are shown to have biological and psychological problems in the years to come. Sometimes, the caregivers are instructed to withhold human touch– an essential part of a child’s development. Some problems including, but not limited to, negative cognitive functioning, brain development, attention, higher stress levels, mental illnesses and chronic physical illnesses (that can continue into adulthood), eating, sleep, social functioning, and language. 30% of mental health disorders come from childhood suffering. Children who are forcibly separated from their family are at an overall higher risk for mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, ADHD, and PTSD.
In a child’s brain, there are certain networks that are more vulnerable than others to the effects of family separation- especially early family separation. Increased rushes of stress hormones are going to influence the regions of the brain that help process emotions- the amygdala. Children who go through a family separation and parental deprivation show hyperactivity in the amygdala. Essentially, the amygdala is the part of the brain that responds to threats and with the severe stress and anxiety of separation, it can become hijacked and the hyperactivity causes the brain to signal danger in situations even when there is no danger. Within the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that quiets the amygdala and puts it in place also has adjusted and changed development due to family separation and parental deprivation. These changes to the amygdala and prefrontal cortex are what cause children to have issues with emotional regulation later in life.
Children have such a long childhood for a reason: it takes that long for their brains to mature into adulthood. A parents’ physical presence is actually a key piece in regulating a child’s emotional and stress reactivity. Studies have shown that the presence of a parent in a child’s life lowers the child’s cortisol levels, the major stress hormone. The parents’ presence also helps regulate the reactivity in the amygdala. One study went as far as to discover that the presence of a parent can actually create a more mature relationship with prefrontal-amygdala connectivity as well as a well-regulated amygdala in general.
What all of this means to say is that when a parent is no longer present in a (young) child’s life, the shape of the brain can be short-circuited, the brain becomes hypervigilant thanks to the amygdala (which is a classic symptom of PTSD), the part of the brain that regulates behavior doesn’t respond or function normally (which makes the child more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and substance abuse), and the cortical structures aren’t developed properly (these structures help attention, judgement, emotional control, and planning). A child begins to internalize behaviors such as depression and anxiety, and externalize problematic behavior such as attention problems, impulse control, substance abuse, and conduct disorder). Furthermore, it’s been proven that these can follow a child into adulthood.
Tips to make family separation easier
- Don’t think that kids take it lightly. Some parents think that when they separate their family, their kids are fine. Whether it’s visible or not, family separation hurts children.
- Make sure the kids don’t carry the burden of the separation.
- Express emotions. Not expressing emotions leads to a lack of communication and typically hurt feelings. Be sure to communicate.
- Remind them they aren’t being abandoned.
- Try to make sure the kids can see a counselor or that they have some sort of support system to help them through the lack of family structure.
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Anna is a freelance writer who is passionate about translation, psychology, and how the world works.