Separation of migrant children from their parents: commentary by a practising child psychologist

Svetlana Seleznyova, a practising child psychologist, comments on the practice of separating migrant children from their parents:

“The sudden separation of a mother from her child almost always leaves a major imprint on the child’s mind. The depth and severity of the consequences depend on many factors, but primarily on the child’s age. Researchers studying the aftereffects of separation conditionally divide children into three age groups: infants from birth to 12 months, children from one to four, and children over the age of four.

Separation of an infant under the age of 12 months from its mother threatens the child’s physical and psychological existence and results in higher mortality rates for various reasons, including “toxic stress,” which is debilitating for the organism. Infants separated from their mother develop “hospitalism” (René Spitz) or “hospital deprivation,” which leads to severe physical and psychological underdevelopment and manifests in delayed development of motor skills and formation of higher psychological functions.

Separation between the ages of one and four is also frequently associated with irreversible psychological consequences. In the first years of life, the sense of attachment develops intensively and the foundation of relationships not just with close people, but with the entire world, is laid. The loss of a maternal figure at this age is experienced as a threat to life. Specialists note the connection between enduring an extended separation in childhood and the emergence of various psychopathologies in adulthood. During a separation, a child initially feels the absence of their mother acutely and shows despair, but then enters a phase of alienation, when the child appears to be calm. In reality, this is a result of trauma: The child stops waiting and building deeply rooted feelings of attachment.

Separation is also traumatic at an older age. The degree of trauma depends on the individual traits of each specific child, relationships in the family, the length of separation, and the conditions in which the child is kept”.

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