The current border crisis where children are being forcibly separated from their parents has many of us wondering about the impact of such a practice. As a child psychologist who understands the effects of trauma on a child’s mental health, cognitive and emotional development, physical health, social adjustment, interpersonal formation, and academic challenges, I am disheartened by what these innocent children have been experiencing. As a mother, I am filled with anguish when imagining the utter fear and terror of a child being pulled away from the safety of a parent or loved one.
A wealth of studies on attachment theories have stressed the importance of the early parent-child bond to a child’s well-being. Secure attachment to a primary caregiver is one of the foremost contributors to establishing healthy emotional and interpersonal growth. Decades of research on the lifelong outcomes of children being separated from their parents have repeatedly informed us that early trauma has significant hindrance on a child’s development and functioning.
On a cognitive level, a child will develop negative beliefs about her self-value, lack of ability and control, and the world being a threatening place. These maladaptive thought patterns become imprinted into the child’s neuropathways resulting in permanent damage to the brain. Emotionally, the child will feel a constant threat to her well-being which can translate to anxiety, depression, helplessness, and anger. On a physical level, being subjected to chronic and intense fear and horror compromises a child’s immune system to fight off illnesses and diseases. Socially, the child may be withdrawn, isolated, and distrusting of others. Interpersonally, the child is likely to be suspicious of others, have a hard time connecting authentically, and even act out defiantly in anger. Academically, a child who has experienced trauma may not have the motivation, drive, and belief in herself to meet the challenges of school-related tasks.
All of these consequences can result in a multitude of mental health conditions, including posttraumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and many potential others. As adults and role models to children, our primary role is to provide an environment that is safe for them to thrive. Many parents have asked how do they explain what’s happening to their own children. Listen to your children’s concerns, validate their feelings, be honest about your own feelings, and reassure that they are safe with you.
We have all been a helpless child once upon a time relying on those we trust to nurture, guide, and care for us. Many of us recall an early memory of getting lost at a store, feeling the sudden panic and terror as we realize that mommy or daddy is nowhere to be found. Take that frightful memory and multiply it by 100. This is what’s happening to the families being separated at our borders. And the memories will remain with these children and families for the rest of their lives.
For those of us in the mental health field, it is our duty to advocate and be the voice for these innocent children whose lives will be forever changed by this traumatic event. We don’t know what will happen to these children who have been separated from their parents. We don’t know whether these children will simply get lost in the system. We don’t know how many of these families will even be reunited. For those of us who work with children and families, we can be prepared to help them cope with the resulting terror, confusion, and anger. For further resources, please visit:
About the author:
Dr. Yip is a clinical psychologist, author, speaker and a nationally recognized OCD and anxiety expert.
Since childhood, Dr. Yip has fought her own personal battle with OCD. Like so many others, she found herself falling victim to the daily struggles that OCD can bring to one’s life. Inspired by her childhood struggles and motivated to helping others overcome theirs, Dr. Yip has dedicated her professional career to treating families and individuals with severe OCD and anxiety disorders.
She developed the Family Systems Based Strategic CBT, integrating Mindfulness Training and Strategic Paradoxical Techniques with Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). She has successfully treated severe OCD and anxiety disorders for over a decade with this comprehensive modality. In 2008, Dr. Yip established the Renewed Freedom Center in Los Angeles to help those suffering from OCD and anxiety disorders by providing the most advanced treatment available.
Dr. Yip is Board Certified in Behavioral & Cognitive Psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Cognitive & Behavioral Psychology. She is an Institutional Member of the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF), a Clinical Member of the Association for Behavioral & Cognitive Therapies (ABCT), and a Clinical Member of the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA) where she also serves on the Public Education Committee. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Southern California (USC) – Keck School of Medicine, Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Program.
She has published numerous articles, presented at more than 50 national and international conferences, and continually provides training in her areas of expertise. She has been featured in various media venues, and often consults on documentaries and film productions about OCD and anxiety. In an effort to raise public awareness and eliminate negative stigmas about mental health, Dr. Yip is tirelessly involved in a range of organizational, educational, and media projects to provide effective strategies for defeating the OCD/anxiety monster.