Separating children from parents can negatively affect brain development

Trauma alters neurological development and makes kids anxious and fearful
Jesus Funes, 19-months-old, an immigrant from Honduras, eats a banana after crossing back into Reynosa, Mexico, with his family. The family, who was seeking asylum, told Associated Press they were told by officials they would be separated so they voluntarily returned to Mexico. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)
Listen24:49

When children are traumatically separated from their parents, as we've recently seen with migrants at the U.S. southern border, it does more than just distress children. It can negatively influence the development of their brains, biasing them towards anxiety and fear, and compromising their cognitive development as well.

According to Michael Meaney, a neurobiologist from McGill University, the best way to understand what happens to a child under these circumstances is their brain is forced to grow up too fast. 

"When you separate parents from children, what you do is you basically accelerate the development of those systems that are meant to defend the brain and the rest of the body against stressors."

Meaney studies trauma and parental deprivation in children and how it affects their brains. He investigates how these early life experience change gene expression, which shapes how the brain is built and connected, as well as conducting neuroimaging studies to look how this influences the way brain regions communicate. 

Parents are there to tend to the primary threats and challenges of the individual, so that the child can concentrate on developing their brain and their capacity.- Dr. Michael Meaney, McGill University

All this work has convinced him of the importance of caring parents for a child's developing brain.

"Parents are there to tend to the primary threats and challenges of the individual, so that the child can concentrate on developing their brain and their capacity."

Salvadoran migrant Epigmenio Centeno holds the hand of his three-year-old son Steven Atonay in Ciudad Juarez after he decided to stay with his children in Mexico due to U.S. President Donald Trump's child separation policy. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Why children need their parents

The key seems to be that parents insulate the children from stresses while their brains mature. Children with a reliable parental presence "don't release the stress hormones that can compromise the development of the brain," says Meaney.

"When you remove the children from this particular context, when that buffering is no longer available, the children are actually left to fend for themselves biologically."

You accelerate the connections between the amygdala and the rest of the brain, so that now the system becomes hypersensitive to stress at an age when it should normally be protected from such activity by the care of the parents.- Dr. Michael Meaney, McGill University

One important example of a part of the brain influenced in this way is the amygdala. It's a structure deep in the brain that plays an important role in regulating emotional response, fear, and anxiety. According to Meaney, it's "ground zero" for the stress response, and childhood deprivation changes the way it connects to the rest of the brain.

"You accelerate the connections between the amygdala and the rest of the brain, so that now the system becomes hypersensitive to stress at an age when it should normally be protected from such activity by the care of the parents."

The amygdala is buried deep in the brain and is important in regulating emotion, anxiety and fear. (Elizabeth Kensinger)

What these brain changes can mean for traumatized children

This early maturation makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. For a child who's suddenly bereft of parents, survival could well depend on them being more cautious, fearful and anxious.

However this sets a pattern of elevated stress for a lifetime.

Those children tend to grow up into adults who are hypersensitive to threat. They respond to circumstances which are relatively benign as if they are dangerous.- Dr. Michael Meaney, McGill University

"Those children tend to grow up into adults who are hypersensitive to threat. They respond to circumstances which are relatively benign as if they are dangerous," says Meaney. "And so what you see are people who are extremely prone to anxiety disorders and depression."

Mental health issues are not the only risk that comes with childhood trauma and parental deprivation. Physical health is compromised as well. According to Meaney this includes higher risk of metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity, cardiovascular disease and stroke, inflammatory conditions like arthritis, and possibly even Alzheimer's.

For girls, the risks may be even greater as this kind of stress drives the early onset of puberty, which increases their chances of developing endocrine disorders and possibly even breast cancer.

A group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in a February 1940 archive photo. (Reuters)

Meaney says it's clear that those who are administering these policies don't understand the effects of early childhood trauma on the brain. 

"I've heard quotes from certain administrators that the younger children will have no memory of that, and that's nonsensical, because the effects of this level of trauma on the children has nothing to do with their memory. It's a direct result of the biological response to the trauma and an enduring effect on brain development."

Canada's own history of removing children from their parents

Of course these tragic outcomes are not restricted to Latin American migrants on the U.S. border. According to Amy Bombay, who studies psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University in Halifax, we have vivid examples of this right here in Canada.

When I saw the news in the U.S. about the separation of children and their parents, it immediately reminded me of the situation here in Canada.- Dr. Amy Bombay, Dalhousie University

"I study the long-term effects of the Indian residential school system on the survivors and their children and grandchildren, and how this past government policy contributes to the ongoing health and social inequities in Canada," says Bombay. "When I saw the news in the U.S. about the separation of children and their parents, it immediately reminded me of the situation here in Canada."

Bombay has found precisely the kind of outcomes that Meaney describes in adult survivors of the residential school system and the notorious "Sixties Scoop," when Indigenous children were systematically seized from their parents and placed in foster homes or put up for adoption.

Her current work is exploring how some of the effects of this trauma have been transmitted to further generations and what can be done to remediate this lasting and durable harm.