May 2021




  • Migrant children experience trauma pre, post, and during migration
  • Children remain in Border Control custody for up to 133 hours
  • Being separated from parents/ caregivers can cause insecure attachments to develop

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The Mental Health of Migrant Children

 By: Melissa Donadio, M.A.

In 2019, a record number of 69,550 children resided in facilities operated by the U.S. Border Patrol (Sherman, Mendoza, & Burke, 2019). By law, these children are not supposed to stay in border shelters for more than 72 hours, yet many have stayed up to 133 hours (Alvarez, 2021). These children, whose ages range from less than one year-old to 18 years-old, have experienced significant trauma, which is defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2013) as having experienced, witnessed, or been confronted with an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others. Children who experience trauma are at an increased risk of developing mental health problems, such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and anxiety (Kaminer, Seedat, & Stein, 2005). Therefore, it is important for caregivers to understand the trauma experienced by migrant children before, during, and after their stay in Border Patrol custody to assist them with coping and to promote resilience.

There are a variety of reasons why parents decide to migrate and bring their children to the U.S., and some children even come alone. Some of these reasons include economic hardship, exposure to war, and violence in their home countries. Thus, children who migrate have likely endured years of chronic stress, which significantly influences development (Batista-Pinto Wiese, 2010). For example, experiencing chronic stress can alter the way a child’s brain functions, which can impact their social-emotional skills as well as cause cognitive impairment (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2012). This can be displayed through behaviors such as aggression, difficulties forming healthy relationships, intentionally withdrawing from others, and self-injury (Evans & Kim, 2012). Moreover, the effects of chronic stress are maximized when migrant children are separated from their parents or other caregivers.

Most children residing in border patrol custody are separated from their parents, and many spend years in shelters, group homes, or foster care (Cheatham, 2021). Some children’s parents are even deported back to their home countries, essentially creating a permanent separation between children and their caregivers (Ainsley & Soboroff, 2020). When children experience separation from caregivers, they are likely to develop insecure attachments (Ainsworth, 1989).

According to psychologist Mary Ainsworth, insecure attachments are characterized by difficulties forming emotional bonds with others, despite having an overwhelming need to have emotional connections (Ainsworth,1989). Further, children who develop insecure attachments are more likely to develop anxiety and depressive symptoms later in life (Hazan & Shaver, 1987). Along with displaying insecure attachments, migrant children continue to experience trauma even after they are released from Border Patrol custody.
After being released from Border Patrol custody, migrant children are exposed to additional hardships such as low socio-economic status and difficulties adapting to a new culture. Additionally, many migrant children face racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination based on their physical appearance, language, and religious activities (Suarez-Orozco & Qin, 2006). The combination of these experiences significantly increases the likelihood of developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is described by the APA as reliving traumatic events via intrusive memories, flashbacks, and nightmares (APA, 2013). Likewise, PTSD symptoms include avoidance of anything that causes reminders of traumatic experiences and having intense anxiety when reminders are unavoidable (APA, 2013). Overall, migrant children who reside or have formerly resided in Border Patrol custody have experienced significant trauma that can be detrimental to their mental health. However, these risks can be mitigated with the aid of social supports, specifically by caregivers and school professional (Perreira & Ornelas, 2013). Adults in these roles should consider the following to best support migrant children:

  • Help children create secure attachments by providing a sense of safety and security in the adult-child relationship.
  • Promote resilience by validating children’s feelings and experiences and showing empathy.
  • Assist children in connecting to their home cultures through media, books, language, food, and connecting them with relatives when possible.
  • Monitor for symptoms of PTSD, such as nightmares and intrusive thoughts about past trauma, avoiding situations that remind them of their traumatic experiences, and physical reactions such as difficulties sleeping or concentrating, irritability, being easily frightened, self-injurious behaviors, and overwhelming guilt or shame.
  • Help children adapt to new cultures while also promoting their racial, ethnic, and religious identities.


    Bilingual resource for families and educators
    Free digital library with books representing dozens of cultures and languages
    Several resources for understanding lived experiences of migrant children
    Organization providing legal assistance to unaccompanied migrant children in New Jersey


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American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Alvarez, P. (2021, April 12). Number of unaccompanied migrant children in Customs and Border Protection custody falls 45%. Retrieved from:

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Cheatham, A. (2021, May 4). U.S. detention of child migrants. Retrieved from:

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Kaminer, D., Seedat, S., & Stein, D.J. (2005). Post-traumatic stress disorder in children. World Psychiatry, 4(2), 121-125.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2012). Establishing a level foundation for life: Mental health begins in early childhood: Working paper 6 [Updated Edition]. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Perreira, K., & Ornelas, I. (2013). Painful passages: Traumatic experiences and post-traumatic stress among immigrant Latino adolescents and their primary caregivers. The International Migration Review, 47(4), 148-152. doi: 10.1111/imre.12050

Sherman, C., Mendoza, M., & Burke, G. (2021, November 2019). US held record number of migrant children in custody in 2019 Retrieved from:

Suárez-Orozco, C., & Qin, B. (2006). Gendered perspectives in psychology: Immigrant origin youth. International Migration Review, 40,165–198.