Two behavioral neuroscientists discuss the long-term damage of family separation

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Two behavioral neuroscientists discuss the long-term damage of family separation

The neurological and behavioral consequences of separating children from parents, especially mothers, can persist into adulthood

It has been more than a month since President Trump signed an executive order that ended the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that led to about 3,000 children being separated from their parents. On July 12, The New York Times reported 57 of 103 migrant children under age 5 had been reunited with their parents, while 46 children are still under government custody because they had been deemed ineligible to be sent to their families. Some of the grounds for this include having parents with criminal records and entering the country with people eventually established to be non-family members.

So what happens to the children who continue to be separated from their families? One thing is sure, thanks to a decade of scientific research: separating children from parents, especially mothers, bears a neurological and behavioral consequence for children, and these effects can persist into adulthood.

Massive talks with Heather Brenhouse and Jennifer Honeycutt, two prominent behavioral neuroscientists at Northeastern University, to discuss the scientific underpinnings of a social phenomenon that has shaken the US. 

They discuss the nature of childhood stress, the role of resilience, and the perception of science in the world today. With the rising scrutiny against science within the administration, “…we need to find more avenues to communicate with the public in a way that will not only inform them, but also integrate with them so actual change can be made with the people, and not outside of them,” says Brenhouse.


Prabarna Ganguly: What are some of the most common types of maternal separation? The public has an intuitive understanding of the issue, but what are some specific examples?

Heather Brenhouse: There are so many ways that a child can be exposed to trauma or adversity. They almost always stem in relation to their caregivers, because that is what children require the most for their well-being. They are all associated with caregivers, but they can range from very healthy and loving parents who happen to emotionally neglect their child (which has been brought up as a real type of adversity that children can experience and have a host of consequences), to parents suffering from mental illnesses or living under impoverished conditions, all the way to abusive parents.

And then there is the other realm, where the child is brought up in a war-torn environment. That is also married with the fact that these parents are then less capable of providing them with the proper care. So yes, there are so many types of such adversity, and that is a just a few of them.

With all the ways in which children are exposed to traumatic experiences and their deleterious effects on brain and behavior, what is the range of resilience in these children?

Brenhouse: That is a great question, and yes, there is a huge range of resiliency.

Jennifer Honeycutt: I think it is linked with innate biological mechanisms, i.e., what are the genes that you are born with and how the environment impacts those genes. You can be born with the same genes as another person, and depending on your environment you’ll have variable behavioral outcomes. Furthermore, your genes are going to be impacted by your environment and later on can be transmitted to your offsprings, and we have seen transgenerational effects of stress and trauma. In terms of resiliency, it depends on many factors that we do not understand quite well.

That said, we know that a little bit of stress can make you resilient to later stressful situations in life. We call that “acute stress.” But when it becomes chronic, or long-term, then that can confer vulnerability to someone. Children that come from orphanages and then assimilated into caring families – they are buffered compared to kids who are not given the same kinds of resources in their new adopted homes.

Brenhouse: Even if there isn’t an ingrained resiliency, it is important for people to know that you are not broken forever. There are strategies and things you can use, as an adult, that can help reverse these traumatic effects.

This is so important because there is also a tendency to catastrophize trauma and its effects. Yes, it certainly has negative consequences, but as scientists it is important to temper what we are saying to the public.

Honeycutt: Agreed, but just because that is not the case for all children doesn’t mean it is still not highly important to understand what does happen to the subset of kids who are impacted by these events. Because even if all these systems we are talking about are in place, not all children will benefit from them.

A detention center in McAllen, Texas

Do you have any ideas on how to help the children who are being separated from their families, after the fact?

Brenhouse: Well, staying with their parental unit and giving parents enough resources to take care of their child would certainly be the best option.

Honeycutt: Temporary family houses, with resources available, because many of the people coming in, such as those seeking asylum, might not speak English, might not know any ways in which to contact family members here or back home to get a support system. This is important because the parents' well-being is going to affect the stress level of the child.

Brenhouse: Speaking of policy, I’m glad I do not have this job because I have no idea how to solve it. All I know is that there is a wrong way to do it. I don’t know the right way to, but the wrong way is abundantly clear. We are not saying that we want to reward people who are entering the country illegally. That is not the solution. People get here in the US because they understand that our country was founded on immigration, and that we believe in taking people in who need homes and a free life. From that point of compassion, once people are here, you definitely do not want to ruin their childrens’ lives by separating them from their parents.

Honeycutt: Exactly, because if we do that, then we are taking a bad situation and making it worse.

We know that about 2,000 children and maybe more have been put in detention centers that almost mimic cages. With the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under such pressure, it is possible that many of these children will not get reunited with their parents for a large period of time. What is the best next option for them?

Honeycutt: The DHS must find relatives who may be living in the US Unfortunately, there are most likely many family members who do live in the US, but are undocumented. So there has to be some sort of leniency in that respect. Alternatively, considering having people that are staffed in these places who aren’t soldiers. Such as people trained in childcare of some sort, who can provide structure, activities, and engagement for these kids. These are bare minimum necessities. Who is there working with them now? The people who are watching these children are government agents, with no training in child psychology or education. These children are basically being kept in holding pens.

Brenhouse: We are scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point. There is a lot of room for improvement. First off, keep the children with their families, for that is the right thing to do. In between, make sure that they are provided with able caregiving so that the children do not become institutionalized. We have seen lots of studies on institutionalized children in orphanages, such as Romania and China. These children have different brains, behavior, and mental processes. Many show behavioral consequences including depression, anxiety, and even substance abuse disorders. We do not want the same kinds of negative life outcomes for the children held at our borders.

Honeycutt: Many of these children are as young as a year old. A lot of them are also adolescents. These are critical time points when the brain is undergoing a lot of maturation and development. Any sort of stressor is going to impact the trajectory of this development.

You both cosigned a letter with thousands of your scientific peers taking a stand against the US separation policy. Did you have any trepidations about joining that movement?

Brenhouse: This is all the right thing to do. My worry is that we could cite as many papers as possible, but all it will read to the government is elite scientists in their ivory towers showing, “look what our study found, look at what that other study found.” That the words “study” and “science” will fall on deaf ears because the people driving these policies are no longer valuing science as a reason to believe anything. I feel like when we do these kinds of things we are just shouting into the ether. We as scientists think of science as evidence, but that is not resonating with people like it used to. So the best we can do is make our science as transparent as possible because a lot of people in the public no longer trust it. And some of it is certainly our fault.

What kind of role do you think scientists need to take in order to change the public perception of science?

Brenhouse: We need to find more avenues to communicate with the public in a way that will not only inform them, but also integrate with them so actual change can be made with the people, and not outside of them. Universities can start outreach programs, with researchers being more aware of the realities of the world outside their lab bench. This is a complete abstraction, but hopefully the idea can create something of value.

Honeycutt: Science is everywhere, but there are so many people who would just disagree with that.

Agreed, but another issue is that what the science is telling us can have real impacts on a person’s life. Climate change is real, but what happens to the coal worker’s earnings? Science and social policy might not be on the same page in terms of how to balance the knowledge of things, and acting on them to make things better.

Brenhouse: Unfortunately, we are talking about this only from one perspective. There is a whole group of politicians who do not believe that science belongs in the realm of politics. It is another example of how polarized we are, and how people are speaking completely different languages of reality. I do not know how to start speaking the same language again. It will happen, and I am sure of it, but we are seeing different realities. But whether this situation resolves itself soon or not, this is an important moment where we need to start thinking of how to create a synthesis of science and policy that works in harmony. The first step is to spread the knowledge of the detrimental effects of parental separation on children's cognitive and emotional development. This reality is something I am certain we all can empathize with, and maybe that empathy will become the common language, instead of us just spewing scientific facts at the public.