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Attachment Disorders Due to Parental Separation

I don’t wish to fall into the quagmire of politics here, but I need to speak out about the dire consequences that happen when children are separated from their parents. If you don’t believe me, read what British psychologist John Bowlby, American-Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth, or American psychologist Harry Harlow wrote about attachment disorders and separation. Their research is downright chilling. Better yet, look at your own young children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews and notice the profound distress they feel when they are—or even think they are—separated from you. Or think back to your early life and consider how enforced separations shaped how you relate to people today. You don’t need to be a therapist to understand how attachments and separations are likely to adversely affect mental health for a lifetime.
If you want to delve into some heart-breaking psychology to understand the primacy and legacy of attachment and separation, consider Harlow’s work with monkeys. “Working with infant monkeys and surrogate mothers made of terrycloth or wire, Harlow concluded that extended social deprivation in the early years of life can severely disrupt later social and sexual behavior.” (Monkeys, Infant, Contact, and Deprivation-JRank Articles, retrieved 6/23/18)
A recent article in the Washington Post says what every therapist knows (What separation from parents does to children: ‘The effect is catastrophic’, retrieved 6/23/18): “This is what happens inside children when they are forcibly separated from their parents. Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites—the little branches in brain cells that transmit mes­sages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and—especially in young children—wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain. ‘The effect is catastrophic,’ said Charles Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School. ‘There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.’”
“From the time they are born, children emotionally attach to their caregiver and vice versa,” said Lisa Fortuna, medical director for child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center. “Skin-to-skin contact for newborns, for example, is critical to their development, research shows. Our bodies secrete hormones like oxytocin on contact that reinforces the bond, to help us attach and connect.”
She goes on to say: “A child’s sense of what safety means depends on that relationship. And without it, the parts of the brain that deal with attachment and fear — the amygdala and hippocampus — develop differently. The reason such children often develop PTSD later in life is that those neurons start firing irregularly. The part of their brain that sorts things into safe or dangerous does not work like it’s supposed to. Things that are not threatening seem threatening.”
If you are a parent, think about what it’s been like when you, as an adult, have been separated from your child even for a short time. Now think about what it’s like for a child without a fully developed brain to understand the context of what’s going on. It’s terrifying. I recall my mother telling me that she and my father had gone away for a weekend when I was a toddler and left me with an aunt and uncle I knew well. Apparently, I cried so hard that they had to drive all the way back from New England to New York City because I was so inconsolable. Fortunately, I had a strong attachment to both of my parents and was not harmed by the incident. But imagine if this happened frequently or if I didn’t get attention from substitute care-takers or if the parent-child bond wasn’t that strong to begin with.
I work every day with adults who had enforced separations from their parents as young children when a parent died, simply left, wasn’t around much, or had to be away for a length of time for work or military reasons. Each of these clients has had problems with attachment and separation in adult relationships. For that matter, consider how important feeding and eating is in childhood and what it might be like for young children to be without their parents while being served strange food by strangers, never mind sleeping in strange beds or understanding a strange language they don’t understand.
If we want to invite trauma into the lives of children, all we need to do is to separate them from their families. How sad and cruel when that can be prevented.