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What History Teaches Us About The Effects of Separating Children From Families

By Dr. Carolina Castaños

British children being evacuated by the government in Operation Pied Piper, September 1939


By Dr. Carolina Castaños


During World War II, children in England and France were separated from their parents. Many children were evacuated to live with unknown families, and many others were left orphans. These children nor their parents had any idea of what their future entailed. They did not know where they would be the next day, or if they would be able to see each other ever again. Parents sent their babies to save their lives, heartbroken, they sent them as they stayed in terror, terror for their lives, terror for not knowing what would happen to their children. Many parents were left wondering who could take care of them, who would wipe their tears, who would soothe them whenever they were scared, who would laugh with them, who would love them?

At the orphanages, hundreds of children were situated in large rooms filled with little beds or cradles. Volunteers, many who were nuns, made sure children were changed and fed. Regardless of their bodies being taken care of, children entered a stated of complete withdrawal and disengagement… they did not move; they did not look or respond to others. This state led them to die eventually. Doctors could not understand such a phenomenon. How could these children that had all their bodies needed be having these reactions? How could they die?

This question was answered by John Bowlby and Renee Spitz. Spitz observed how detrimental the lack of touch and deprivation of human contact was for a child. Bowlby created the Attachment Theory that has been reconfirmed throughout the years by different disciplines. The Attachment Theory is based on the innate need to attach, to establish an emotional connection as a means to survive. Humans are born wholly vulnerable and not prepared to survive alone. Without attachment, caretakers would abandon their infants, and infants would die. Years later, neuroscientists have added to these findings by explaining the intense panic that gets set off when individuals are abandoned or rejected. We now know that we are wired to connect. There is no worst thing for a human being than being abandoned. We humans need to connect and attach from the cradle to the grave. Abandonment produces intense emotional suffering. In infants, abandonment leaves them in a state of desperation.

The forced separation of children and parents is a traumatizing experience as it is an experience of powerlessness, hopelessness, helplessness. All these are worsened due to this separation being imposed. At least during WWII parents chose to separate, even though it broke their hearts, they did it to save their children. Being forced to separate, experiencing an authoritative, forceful, inflexible, and emotionally detached entity is a form of abuse. Having children unable to receive soothing, unable to have their voice heard, to have their basic human needs met is the worst abuse that a mother, a father, and a child can experience. Abuse creates trauma and Trauma has consequences. Trauma is not something that passes in a day. Trauma leaves a life long mark; it leaves an imprint in our mind; one that may make one feel unworthy, that their needs do not matter, that their voice does not count, and even worse that they not count. When these messages are imprinted in our mind, we develop many different strategies to cope.

Sometimes, it merely might be so much that we cannot cope, and our light goes off, our energy to live disappears, our look becomes empty, lifeless. Children with this type of trauma then learn to be fearful, fearful of connecting and fearful of others. Strategies that we might develop as means to cope with this intense pain are finding refuge in later years in drugs or alcohol, or cutting, for example. Depression is also a consequence of such trauma, anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) which leaves us stuck in the traumatic experience, living in the past, feeling it happening over and over again, having images that simply will not leave your mind and coming back as flashbacks and nightmares. These terrible images that will not go away, producing intense feelings of powerlessness, fear, hurt. As a society, as a world, knowing what we know, we have a responsibility with those who are in a vulnerable position. We have responsibility for the children, to help them be the best they can be. We have the responsibility to help parents be the best parents they can be. As mental health providers to help parents heal from any hurt that their own parents have caused and to teach them to provide safety to their children, so they can grow and bloom, giving back to the community, to a country, to the world. When we act out of ignorance, well, we learn…. Most of the most significant teachings come from falling and hurting, but you learn, and you learn to make things better in the future, not to make the same mistakes again. There is information, research, experiences that tell us that this is so harmful. We are causing pain, and we are becoming the source of abuse, of trauma, and the hurting hundreds of children and parents in ways that take so much to heal from. Your body recovers from a punch, from a cut and the wound will eventually close. Emotional cuts, emotional bruises, unfortunately, are not that easy to treat or to heal. They affect how a person sees him/herself, how they relate with themselves, and how they treat and relate with others. When we have a scared brain, relationships will hurt, families will hurt, communities will hurt.



About the Author:

Dr. Castaños is a bilingual, award-winning Marriage and Family Therapist with 18 years of experience and a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy. She is world-renowned for helping couples, families, and individuals heal from past wounds, and guide them to establish safe, deeply connected relationships. Dr. Castaños also helps couples that are stuck in negative cycles with issues such as difficulties communicating, loss of passion, disconnection, and infidelity. Individuals with issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, anger and PTSD also seek Dr. Castaños for her guidance. Dr. Castaños also works with families who are in business together, helping address conflicts that can interfere with their operations and value.

Originally published at medium.com

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