For my 17-month-old son, it must have felt like the biggest betrayal of his young life. Early last year, my wife headed off to London for a week to visit her terminally ill mother—a trip she would repeat every few weeks for the next 11 months. We both agreed that adding a jet-lagged toddler to this already emotionally harrowing situation wouldn’t help anyone, so the boy stayed home with me. Of course, my son couldn’t understand our reasoning. He was simply confused that his mom, his main caregiver and the center of his tiny world, kept vanishing. And he resented her for it. Suddenly, I became the favorite parent. When she returned, he didn’t want to be cuddled by her, didn’t want to play with her, didn’t want to be put to bed by her. He’s now 2½, and their bond is almost entirely healed. But the effects of that relatively short period of time apart still linger: When we’re both home at bedtime, he insists that Dad, not Mom, brush his teeth and read him stories.
For the thousands of migrant children who have been removed from their parents at the southern border for months, the scars of separation won’t fade so easily. (See Main Stories.) Research shows that such a trauma floods a child’s developing brain with stress hormones, killing off neurons and causing lasting problems with trust, decision-making, and impulse control. Australian studies of Aboriginal children removed from their families found they were nearly twice as likely to be arrested as adults and 60 percent more likely to have alcohol-abuse problems. In China, children who are “left behind” in villages when their parents migrate to work in cities are markedly more likely to suffer anxiety and depression in later life. Even when the children removed at the U.S.-Mexico border are reunited with their parents, they will likely live with the psychological fallout of separation for decades to come.