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When mom, dad are gone

Although the national headlines have covered parental separation in the form of immigration, the unfortunate truth is that parental separation is nothing new to New Mexican youth. According to the United States Census Bureau, New Mexico ranks 48th among states in the percentage of children in single-parent homes, at 42 percent. Approximately 10 percent of New Mexico children have had a parent who has served time in jail or prison, placing our state at 47th out of 50. According to a 2017 report by Grandfamilies, an organization dedicated to grandparents who are primary caregivers for their grandchildren, 6 percent of New Mexican children live without either biological parent, and 12.7 percent of children live in homes that are owned by grandparents or other relatives. New Mexico has been first or second in the nation for the past 15 years in alcohol-related cirrhotic death, and New Mexico had the second-highest drug overdose mortality rate in the United States in 2014. Therefore, whether secondary to parental substance abuse, incarceration or estrangement, many of New Mexico’s youth have lost their parents.

Why does parental separation matter, and what consensus has the scientific community come to on this topic?

Parental attachment is considered the foundation of healthy growth and development in young children. Theorist Erik Erikson observed that children without a strong attachment relationship to primary caregivers struggle to trust other adults and individuals in their lives and can go on to develop difficulties in developing autonomy, taking initiative, self-motivation, intimacy and productivity as a teenager and adult. John Bowlby, the father of Attachment Theory, noted that attachment deprivation can result in childhood delinquency and aggression, cognitive difficulties, depression, a lack of empathy and callous/unemotional traits in children.

According to the New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, parental attachment can protect against teen suicide. Approximately 20 percent of New Mexican middle and high schoolers report having seriously thought of committing suicide. Children who reported that their parents or caregivers were not interested in their school work, did not know where they were when they were away from home, and did not believe they would be a success were 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide or to abuse alcohol and drugs.

Children forcefully separated from their parents are more likely to report behavioral disturbances, difficulty with sleep and appetite, excessive crying, increased fear, aggressive and withdrawn behavior, adjustment difficulties lasting greater than 6 months, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Romania’s child orphanages were studied by researchers in the West in what was known as the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP). Researchers found that children who had been deprived of parental attachment presented with severe intellectual disability, i.e. severely impaired IQ, brain wave (EEG) function and metabolism abnormalities and poorer brain connections in critical developmental areas. They also presented with difficulties in learning, thinking, focus, emotion regulation, stress management, the ability to solve problems, and the ability to plan and organize themselves.

BEIP researchers found that children deprived of parental attachment have altered levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which is critical for both physical and mental health. Children who have been deprived of attachment experience chronically lower levels of cortisol which can impact the development of brain architecture. The researchers also found that severe parental deprivation can result in growth problems, delayed motor development, abnormal coordination, and immune suppression. Lastly, parental deprivation was associated with greater risk for emotional, behavioral and interpersonal relationship difficulties later in life.

Given the breadth and depth of the aforementioned scientific research, parental separation is now considered an official adverse childhood event (ACE) by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Adverse childhood events, when cumulative, have been associated with teenage pregnancy and the development of substance abuse, depression, suicidality, heart disease, lung disease, cancer, decreased overall quality of life and even early death.