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June 17, 2018

The Psychology of Splitting and Traumatizing Families

By Diane Perlman

Mental health professionals are gravely concerned about the known effects of the cruel and inhumane policy of tearing children away from their parents who have made extraordinary sacrifices to protect them. We are horrified as we helplessly witness our government inflicting psychological damage upon vulnerable people. Forced separations are a form of child abuse, psychological torture, reckless endangerment...


Mental health professionals are gravely concerned about the known effects of the cruel and inhumane policy of tearing children away from their parents who have made extraordinary sacrifices to protect them. We are horrified as we helplessly witness our government inflicting psychological damage upon vulnerable people. Forced separations are a form of child abuse, psychological torture, reckless endangerment, reckless indifference, cruel and unusual punishment, and a crime against humanity. This catastrophic policy, doing great harm and no good, qualifies as "political malpractice."

There is a consensus among therapists, researchers, academics, practitioners, and expert witnesses who study and treat individuals of all ages, families, groups and organizations, across ethnicities and cultures about the savagery of these mindless, punitive policies. We have worked with and studied adults who have suffered throughout life from harm done by early childhood separations and trauma. These unwise policies are creating a crisis in public health and social justice.

We are shocked by Chief of Staff John Kelly's callous response to NPR's John Burnett who asked whether it is "cruel and heartless to take a mother away from her children." Kelly said, "The children will be taken care of -- put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long." And we are appalled by Attorney General Jeff Sessions suggestion that God ordains them to follow these diabolical policies of splitting families.

These comments show a profound lack of empathy, psychological ignorance, an impaired feeling function, and denial of the basic humanity of others. This is akin to antisocial behavior and lacking in remorse. These pathogenic policies of using people as political pawns to deter others are directed by mean-spirited officials who lack "Emotional Intelligence" (Daniel Goleman)/. These policies are even counterproductive.

Psychological impacts include the following:

* Erosion of Basic Trust. According to psychologist Erik Erikson, a sense of basic trust, the sense that the world is predictable and trustworthy, is the most important foundational element in a person's development. These separations undermine parents' ability to fulfill their most important function, essential for healthy development.

* Attachment Disorders. Extensive research highlights the critical importance of a secure attachment pattern to become a well-functioning adult who can contribute to society. Disruptions to secure attachment can cause lifelong suffering and impairments with negative consequences to society.

* Trauma. This policy of producing intolerable stress and psychic pain beyond one's capacity to cope is causing irreparable harm, trauma, extreme prolonged tension, profound grief, excruciating anguish, fear and moral outrage.

* Toxic Stress and Pathology. These brutal separations, including infants and toddlers, risk producing a range of physiological and psychological pathologies, including impacts on brain development, coping mechanisms personality disorders, PTSD, behavior problems, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, relationship disorders, psychic numbing, dissociative disorders, psychosomatic health problems, stress-related physiological disorders, cognitive disorders and more. The administration is condemning vulnerable people to a lifetime of flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety attacks, health problems, relationship problems and more.

* Retraumatization. For those who fled from danger and oppression, took risks, made treacherous journeys across borders and continents with children, left loved ones and their culture to reach safety to protect their children, this is a retraumatization which is more devastating. While we condemn North Korea for separating whole families, taking children from parents, and some from their siblings, is a deeper wound that deprives people of the comfort from their closest bonds we naturally seek in the face of any trauma. Shockingly, some staff incorrectly believe there is a policy of no hugging in which staff cannot comfort screaming children, and even a brother and sister were forbidden to hug each other after being taken from their parents.

* Generational Transmission of Trauma. Effects of trauma tend to be passed down to future generations. The severity of the impact can be mitigated with therapy, other healing and corrective life experiences and a good support system. So children, screaming and wailing inconsolably at the sudden, forceful separation from their parents after an arduous journey will be directly affected, as will their parenting of future children, and the trauma will reverberate over time.

* Vicarious Trauma. The phenomenon of "Vicarious Traumatization" refers to the effects experienced by counselors and others who witness the suffering, fear, pain, trauma and all forms of harm done to others. Those of us with a capacity for empathy watch these heart-wrenching separations in horror. We feel helplessness and possibly collectively guilty and ashamed for the actions of our government.

* Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). PITS, observed and coined by Rachel MacNair, PhD past president elect of The Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence, refers to the traumatic effects on the perpetrators who are following orders to commit these acts of social "violence," including the law enforcement officers hearing the screams of parents and children as they carry out their inhumane orders.

* Societal Consequences. People escaping a life of danger, fear, and poverty, who would likely become grateful, loyal, and patriotic residents and contributing members of society, are betrayed. In addition to trauma they must feel profound resentment, as do we. Furthermore, justifying these cruel policies continues to fuel the most mean-spirited elements of our culture that dehumanize immigrants and creates a social norm in which authorities deem it acceptable to punish and traumatize innocent people because "the law is the law," it's their fault for coming, and that it is legitimate to harm people to deter others. Furthermore, it is unlikely to deter people fleeing from threats to their lives. In addition to being cruel, these policies are poorly informed. This is a stain on the soul of America.

* Unconscious Historical Legacy. Psychologist Jeffrey Jay, Ph.D. points out that separating children from families has been a dark part of American history. He states that "slavery was legalized by the government and made possible by the connivance of institutional and individual by-standers." He quotes Frederick Douglas: "the practice of separating children from their mothers" is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system"But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute"It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution."

We have not faced our original sins of genocide on the Native American people or our and the enslavement of Black people and continue to unnecessarily perpetuate trauma.

Maya Angelou said, "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again."

* Punimania is a diagnostic term coined by me (Diane Perlman). This compulsion to punish is pathological and deserves an accurate diagnosis. Punimania refers to the mindless pathological compulsion to punish when the punishment (1) does not address the cause of the problem, (2) does not correct the problem, (3) causes suffering of innocent people over time and space, and the punisher as well, and (4) causes harm to the fabric and collective psyche of society.

* Our Obligation to treat to heal. Although these divided families are deeply scarred by this trauma, studies of trauma survivors show that appropriate, effective treatments, including techniques of detraumatization by qualified, compassionate, ethical professionals can help reduce the severity of lifelong symptoms and consequences to those who have been traumatized, thus reducing the intergenerational transmission of trauma. The first step is immediate reunion and the provision of safety, stability, and basic human needs. In addition to individual, family, and group therapy, collective healing will be supported by public recognition of this trauma, bearing witness, apology, some form of restitution, emotional support and engagement in community life, and a variation of "truth and reconciliation" processes.

30 years ago, when George H. W. Bush accepted the presidential nomination he called upon us to become a "kinder, gentler nation." For all of our sake, let us take heed.

Diane Perlman, PhD is a clinical and political psychologist, the US Convener of Transcend, International, former chair of Psychologists for Social Responsibility's Task Force on Global Violence and Security, Visiting Scholar at George Mason University School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and founding member of the Transcending Trauma Project.

Authors Website:

Authors Bio:

Visiting Scholar Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution George Mason University

Diane Perlman is a clinical and political psychologist, devoted to applying knowledge from psychology, conflict studies and social sciences to designing strategies and policies to reverse nuclear proliferation, to drastically reduce terrorism, and to raise consciousness about nonviolent strategies fo tension reduction and conflict transformation. She is co-chair of the committee on Global Violence and Security for Psychologists fro Social Responsibility and the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence, Division 48 of the American Psychological Association. She moved from Philadelphia to Washington, DC to start a social science think tank to channel knowledge about effective strategies, based on sound social science to members of congress, media, think tanks, academics, and activists. Some of her writings can be found on her websites, and