Expert Commentary

Family separation: How does it affect children?

We've gathered research on family separations related to incarceration, immigration, divorce and military deployment.

Young child standing with parents

News of immigrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border has sparked outrage among the American public. Community leaders and private citizens alike have expressed concerns about undocumented children being placed in shelters or with foster care families while their parents face prosecution for entering the country illegally.

The issue has raised questions about whether and how such separations affect kids’ health and wellbeing. Over the years, scholars have studied family separations from a multitude of angles, considering it’s an everyday occurrence in America — both voluntarily and as the result of government intervention. For example, many divorced parents can only see their offspring on a limited schedule that’s outlined in a family court order. Meanwhile, mothers and fathers serving in the military may be deployed to distant locales, living apart for months to years at a time. Also, American parents accused or convicted of crimes often are separated from their kids during incarceration or when authorities remove their children from their custody.

Below, Journalist’s Resource has gathered a sampling of peer-reviewed research that examines these scenarios. These studies investigate the potential impacts of child separation broadly as well as separations specifically related to incarceration, immigration, divorce or military deployment.



Separation — general


“Experience of Child–Parent Separation and Later Risk of Violent Criminality”
Mok, Pearl; et al. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2018.04.008.

Results: “Separation from a parent during childhood was associated with elevated risk for subsequent violent offending versus those who lived continuously with both parents. These links were attenuated but persisted after adjustment for parental SES [socioeconomic status]. Associations were stronger for paternal than for maternal separation at least up until mid-childhood and rose with the number of separations. Separation from a father for the first time at a younger age was associated with higher risks than if paternal separation first occurred at an older age, but there was little variation in risk associated with age at first maternal separation. Increasing risks were linked with rising age at first separation from both parents.”


“A Population-Based Study of the Risk of Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder Associated with Parent–Child Separation During Development”
Paksarian, D.; et al. Psychological Medicine, 2015. DOI: 10.1017/S0033291715000781.

Summary: This study, led by scholars from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, finds that parental separation during childhood is a risk factor for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in adulthood. “We found differences in risk according to type of separation and developmental timing, highlighting the importance of considering these factors in studies of the long-term mental health effects of childhood adversity.”


Separation — divorce


“Fifty Moves a Year: Is There an Association Between Joint Physical Custody and Psychosomatic Problems in Children?”
Bergström, Malin; et al. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 2015. DOI: 10.1136/jech-2014-205058.

Conclusions: “Children with non-cohabitant parents experience more psychosomatic problems than those in nuclear families. Those in joint physical custody do however report better psychosomatic health than children living mostly or only with one parent. Longitudinal studies with information on family factors before and after the separation are needed to inform policy of children’s post-separation living arrangements.”


“Estimating the Effects of Parental Divorce and Death with Fixed Effects Models”
Amato, Paul R.; Anthony, Christopher J. Journal of Marriage and Family, 2014. DOI: 10.1111/jomf.12100.

Summary: “Divorce was associated significantly with all outcomes, including declines in reading scores, mathematics scores, positive approach to learning, interpersonal skills, and self‐control and increases in internalizing problems and externalizing problems … Parental death was associated with a significant decline in math scores, a significant decline in internal locus of control, and a significant increase in smoking.”


“Shared Physical Custody: Summary of 40 Studies on Outcomes for Children”
Nielsen, Linda. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 2014. DOI: 10.1080/10502556.2014.965578.

Abstract: “One of the most complex and compelling issues confronting policymakers, parents, and professionals involved in making custody decisions is this: What type of parenting plan is most beneficial for the children after their parents separate? More specifically, are the outcomes any better or worse for children who live with each parent at least 35 percent of the time compared to children who live primarily with their mother and spend less than 35 percent of the time living with their father? This article addresses this question by summarizing the 40 studies that have compared children in these two types of families during the past 25 years. Overall the children in shared parenting families had better outcomes on measures of emotional, behavioral, and psychological well-being, as well as better physical health and better relationships with their fathers and their mothers, benefits that remained even when there were high levels of conflict between their parents.”


Separation — incarceration


“Parental Incarceration and Child Health in the United States”
Wildeman, Christopher; Goldman, Alyssa W.; Turney, Kristin. Epidemiologic Reviews, 2018. DOI: 10.1093/epirev/mxx013.

Abstract: “Mass incarceration has profoundly restructured the life courses of not only marginalized adult men for whom this event is now so prevalent but also their families. We examined research published from 2000 to 2017 on the consequences of parental incarceration for child health in the United States. In addition to focusing on specific health outcomes, we also considered broader indicators of child well-being because there has been little research on the association between parental incarceration and objectively measured child health outcomes. Our findings support four conclusions. First, paternal incarceration is negatively associated — possibly causally so — with a range of child health and well-being indicators. Second, although some research has suggested a negative association between maternal incarceration and child health, the evidence on this front is mixed. Third, although the evidence for average effects of paternal incarceration on child health and well-being is strong, research has also suggested that some key factors moderate the association between paternal incarceration and child health and well-being. Finally, because of the unequal concentration of parental incarceration and the negative consequences this event has for children, mass incarceration has increased both intra-country inequality in child health in the United States and intercountry inequality in child health between the United States and other developed democracies. In light of these important findings, investment in data infrastructure—with emphasis on data sets that include reliable measures of parental incarceration and child health and data sets that facilitate causal inferences—is needed to understand the child health effects of parental incarceration.”


“Early Age at Childhood Parental Incarceration and STI/HIV-Related Drug Use and Sex Risk Across the Young Adult Lifecourse in the U.S.: Heightened Vulnerability of Black and Hispanic Youth”
Khan, Maria R.; et al. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2017.11.006.

Summary: “Black and Hispanic youth disproportionately experienced parental incarceration, with over one quarter of black and one in five Hispanic versus 15 percent of white participants reporting parental incarceration. This is the first study, to our knowledge, to document the relationship between parental incarceration and substance use, sexual risk behavior and STI [sexually transmitted infection] from adolescence into adulthood. Parental incarceration at any age was moderately to strongly associated with STI/HIV risk outcomes. Across racial/ethnic groups, in analyses adjusting for sociodemographics, parental binge drinking, exposure to violence and early parental incarceration remained significantly associated with increased risk of both drug and sex risk outcomes, with effects persisting into adulthood. We observed especially robust associations between parental incarceration and outcomes in non-white groups. For example, early parental incarceration was independently associated with four times the odds of cocaine use in adulthood among black participants and with twice the odds of multiple partnerships and six times the odds of STI in adulthood among Hispanic participants.”


Separation — immigration


“Understanding the Mental Health Consequences of Family Separation for Refugees: Implications for Policy and Practice”
Miller, Alexander; Hess, Julia Meredith; Bybee, Deborah; Goodkind, Jessica R. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 2018. DOI: 10.1037/ort0000272.

Abstract: “Consistent evidence documents the negative impacts of family separation on refugee mental health and concerns for the welfare of distant family members and desire to reunite with family members as priorities for refugees postmigration. Less is known about refugees’ emic perspectives on their experiences of family separation. Using mixed methods data from a community-based mental health intervention study, we found that family separation was a major source of distress for refugees and that it was experienced in a range of ways: as fear for family still in harm’s way, as a feeling of helplessness, as cultural disruption, as the greatest source of distress since resettlement and contributing to mixed emotions around resettlement. In addition to these qualitative findings, we used quantitative data to test the relative contribution of family separation to refugees’ depression/anxiety symptoms, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and psychological quality of life. Separation from a family member was significantly related to all three measures of mental health, and it explained significant additional variance in all three measures even after accounting for participants’ overall level of trauma exposure. Relative to 26 other types of trauma exposure, family separation was one of only two traumatic experiences that explained additional variance in all three measures of mental health. Given the current global refugee crisis and the need for policies to address this large and growing issue, this research highlights the importance of considering the ways in which family separation impacts refugee mental health and policies and practices that could help ameliorate this ongoing stressor.”


“Trauma and Psychological Distress in Latino Citizen Children Following Parental Detention and Deportation”
Rojas-Flores, L.; et al. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 2017. DOI: 10.1037/tra0000177.

Results: “Analyses indicate that PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder] symptoms as reported by parent were significantly higher for children of detained and deported parents compared to citizen children whose parents were either legal permanent residents or undocumented without prior contact with immigration enforcement. Similarly, findings revealed differences in child internalizing problems associated with parental detention and deportation as reported by parent as well as differences in overall child functioning as reported by clinician. In addition, teachers reported higher externalizing for children with more exposure to PTEs [potentially traumatic events].”


Separation — military deployment


“The Association between Length and Number of Deployments on the Emotional Health and Behavior of Children and Adolescents in Military Families”
Londino, Donna L.; Molitor, Patrick; Slocumb, Claire; Burchett, Kaitlin. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaac.2017.09.408.

Conclusions: “Results support other literature suggesting that deployment has a negative effect on psychosocial outcomes of children in military families. In this study, limited by low subject number and subsequent power, number of deployments was significantly correlated with higher scores on two measures assessing a child’s functioning in multiple domains and in general. These results can serve as pilot data to support the need for further studies on the effect of deployment on the functioning of children and teenagers residing in the home of a deployed parent. In particular, further studies should focus on the effect of deployments on school functioning. If continued research confirms these clinical correlations, findings may be useful in shaping the policy on military deployment.”


“Victimization and Adversity Among Children Experiencing War-Related Parental Absence or Deployment in a Nationally Representative U.S. Sample”
Turner, Heather A.; Finkelhor, David; Hamby, Sherry; Henly, Megan. Child Abuse & Neglect, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.02.039.

Summary: “Findings indicate that war-related parental deployment represents a marker for a variety of sources of risk among children and youth. On average, such youth report more delinquency and trauma symptoms than other youth in the general population. However, parental deployment in and of itself is not responsible for emotional and behavior difficulties, but rather it is linked to stress exposure in the form of violence and victimization, both within and outside of the home, and non-victimization adversities that arise over time.”


“Wartime Military Deployment and Increased Pediatric Mental and Behavioral Health Complaints”
Gorman, Gregory H.; Eide, Matilda; Hisle-Gorman, Elizabeth. Pediatrics, 2010. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2009-2856.

Conclusions: “Mental and behavioral health visits increased by 11 percent in these children when a military parent deployed; behavioral disorders increased 19 percent and stress disorders increased 18 percent. Rates especially increased in older children and children of married and male military parents.”



Looking for more research on foster care and parental incarceration? Check out our write-ups on the life experiences of foster care children and what it’s like for kids to have a father behind bars


Preschool, Head Start and early education policies: Research review

Child abuse in the US: Resources for journalists

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