The Impact of Traumatic Separation on a Child’s Developing Brain:

A Brief Discussion Given Current Events

Written by:  Joy Malik-Hasbrook, PsyD PSY22923 Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Many years of research have shown us how important the caregiver/attachment relationship is on a child’s development and resulting adult functioning.   “Development may be conceptualized as the transformation of external into internal regulation” (Shore, 2001, p. 205). Thus, the child internalizes the external experience of the parental relationship to develop many areas including regulating mechanisms of internal feelings and states, inner calming, managing fear and stress, connection with others, and perception of the world.

A child’s brain is continually developing based on her external environment.  Subsequently, research has shown that the brain can be significantly impacted when the child endures a traumatic experience.  Trauma can be defined by an experience where the individual is so frightened and/or helpless that it overwhelms the capacity to cope.  When a child experiences a loss of the caregiver relationship, this can be especially traumatic because children are dependent on their caregivers for survival and safety.  The child will likely be in a constant state of helplessness and vigilance, which is overwhelming for the brain and body. 

Research shows trauma impacts the child’s developing brain in many ways.  The brain adapts to this constant fear and focuses more on survival.  Subsequently, the brain overly develops the systems that anticipate and respond to a threat, instead of other expected areas of maturation.  The limbic system (amygdala and hippocampus), midbrain, and brainstem, which play key roles in regulating our responses to a potential threat, fear, and states of overwhelm show increased sensitivity.  Additionally, the cortex and frontal lobes have reduced functioning, which are structures connected to problem-solving, planning, and learning. 

When a trauma occurs outside of the home, the child can heal and integrate this difficult experience with the support of her loving and safe parent.  The parent’s protection and processing of the trauma support the integration as the child is able to internalize the healing experience from the parent.  Therefore, when a child experiences a distressing parental loss or separation it is traumatizing in multiple ways.  The current political decision that separated families is extremely dangerous to the families’ ongoing health and development.  It is one of the most dangerous experiences a child can have because not only has she experienced something traumatic, the loss of her parent, but she also do NOT have the safety, love, connection, and regulation of the attachment relationship to heal and integrate the traumatic experience.

It is also important to note the shared experience of overwhelming toxic stress among all of us living in the United States.  Given our interconnectedness as humans, we are all impacted by the helplessness and distress our society is feeling. 

We must also remember that our brains, bodies, and minds have an amazing capacity for healing. Research in neuroscience has taught us about neuroplasticity, that the brain, even in adulthood, can change.  We can provide the mental health support for both the children and their caregivers to heal and integrate this trauma. We can also teach mindfulness and compassion practices, which studies have shown support the healing of the brain and body after experiencing a trauma.


Schore, A. (2001) The Effects of Early Relational Trauma on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation, and Infant Mental Health.  Infant Mental Health Journal, 22(1–2), 201–269.

van der Kolk, B (2003) The Neurobiology of Childhood Trauma and Abuse. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinics 12, 293-317.