Families in Psychiatry

Family separations and the intergenerational transmission of trauma


Editor’s Note: Alison M. Heru, MD, the Families in Psychiatry columnist, invited Dr. Reinstein to address this topic.

Growing up, I was always intrigued by the strong emotions that even the mildest separation evoked within me. As a psychiatrist, I now believe that these emotions were related to my family’s difficulty with separation, a concept likely transmitted from my grandmother’s sudden separation as a child.

The political circumstances of the “Kindertransport” and the recent family separation at the southern U.S. border differ, but the Kindertransport is a model for studying the effects of forced parent-child separation and its intergenerational transmission. As a rescue operation that took place immediately before World War II, the Kindertransport was the emigration of approximately 10,000 German Jewish children from Germany and Nazi-occupied countries to England. Even though they were not literally forced, the parents involved were compelled to separate from their children to give their children a chance to survive.

Dr. Sarah Reinstein of Zucker Hillside Hospital of the Northwell Health System, Glen Oaks, N.Y.

Dr. Sarah Reinstein

In a recent letter1 published in The New York Times, Eva Yachnes, herself a Kindertransport participant, reflected on the current situation at the southern U.S. border. She alluded to the lifelong effects of her own separation at the age of 6 when emigrating from Vienna to Germany. Personally, as a granddaughter of a Kindertransport participant, I am particularly concerned about the intergenerational transmission of the trauma of family separation.

Since early May 2018, more than 2,000 children have been forcibly separated from their parents after illegally crossing the border. As part of a “zero tolerance policy,” the separation was characterized by the Trump administration as a deterrent to illegal border crossings. Although many Americans are horrified by the news reports about family separation, psychiatrists in particular have expressed concern about this trauma. The American Psychiatric Association issued a statement2 warning that “any forced separation is highly stressful for children and can cause lifelong trauma.” Several weeks later, the APA joined several other mental health organizations in a letter3 calling for the immediate end of enforcement of those policies. In that letter, the organizations said forced separations can cause “an increased risk of ... mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder.”

What must psychiatrists understand about the impact of childhood trauma? How can psychiatrists approach treatment of children separated from their parents? Are there ways to minimize the risk for intergenerational impact of this trauma?

What do we know?

Childhood trauma is influenced by multiple factors and can be expressed in several ways. According to research,4 the age of the child at the time of traumatic event, the frequency of traumatic experiences, and the degree to which the child’s caretakers were involved in the trauma are factors that influence the extent of psychological damage. This research also suggests that childhood trauma is associated with emotional dysregulation, aggression against self and others, difficulties in attention and dissociation, medical problems, and difficulty with navigating adult interpersonal relationships.


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