A fundamental truth about children is that they have needs they cannot themselves fulfill. They need people who acquire and prepare food for them, and people who look out for their safety and cleanliness. Beyond those material needs, they also need people who care for them emotionally, tending to them when they are sick and supporting them through tough times. Normally these duties fall to parents, but they can also fall to relatives, family friends, babysitters, teachers, or social workers. At the border, in detention centers, they are falling to other detained children, a harrowing detail in a sea of harrowing details now being reported.
Lawyers who visited a border station in Clint, Texas, this week told the Associated Press that during their visit, they encountered small children who had been taken from their parents under the Trump administration’s family-separation policy, some of them infants and toddlers, who are receiving little time or attention from adult caregivers or supervisors. Instead, some detained children receive affection and care—such as being held, rocked, bathed, fed, and even changed—only from other, slightly older detained children. As the AP reported Saturday:
Three girls told attorneys they were trying to take care of [a] 2-year-old boy, who had wet his pants and had no diaper and was wearing a mucus-smeared shirt when the legal team encountered him.
“A Border Patrol agent came in our room with a 2-year-old boy and asked us, ‘Who wants to take care of this little boy?’ Another girl said she would take care of him, but she lost interest after a few hours and so I started taking care of him yesterday,” one of the girls said in an interview with attorneys.
Children are so tired from the duties of caring for one another that they are reportedly falling asleep during interviews with the lawyers, and one 8-year-old who was “taking care of a very small 4-year-old with matted hair couldn’t convince the little one to take a shower,” a lawyer told the AP. One 14-year-old girl from Guatemala who had been holding two little girls in her lap told the AP, “I need comfort, too. I am bigger than they are, but I am a child, too.”
A report published in The New York Times, meanwhile, said that “children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met … Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants.” Lawyers who spoke with the Times confirmed that they had observed similar scenes involving dirty, neglected children, often being surrogate-parented by other children, at six other facilities along the border.
The short-term and long-term harms that could come to children who have to do this kind of thing are staggering. While the psychological damage that children can suffer when involuntarily separated from their parents has been widely documented, the added duty of parenting other children only compounds the potential damage.
Experts call children shouldering parental duties in the absence of a capable adult caregiver “parentification,” or sometimes destructive parentification. As Cindy Lamothe wrote for The Atlantic in 2017, parentification often results from having an abusive or a neglectful parent, or a parent with an incapacitating alcohol or drug addiction, and it can have dire consequences both at the time and far into the future. For one thing, prolonged periods of heightened stress on a child—which would naturally result from having the wholly age-inappropriate responsibility of feeding, bathing, clothing, and otherwise providing for other children—can affect the function of several of the body’s internal systems and cause severe illnesses, short-term and long-term. As Lamothe pointed out, “Links have been found between childhood stressors and adult heart disease, diabetes, migraines, and irritable bowel syndrome.” Prolonged high-stress situations can also lead to brain damage in kids: According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, high levels of cortisol and corticotropin-releasing hormone (two chemicals released by the body in stressful situations) can alter the hippocampus and damage a child’s memory and learning capabilities.
Plus, “Researchers are increasingly finding that in addition to upending a child’s development, this role reversal can leave deep emotional scars well into adulthood,” Lamothe wrote. Many “experience severe anxiety, depression, and psychological distress. Others report succumbing to eating disorders and substance abuse.” Some kids who parent their siblings, she added—especially those who come from abusive homes—have close but complicated relationships with those siblings as they grow older.
Parentification, in other words, is bad for kids even in less extreme circumstances than a detainment facility. Numerous books and studies underline the potential harms of burdening children with parental duties too early in life: Many find that they continue to compulsively parent others into adolescence and adulthood, at the expense of their own needs and sometimes at the expense of those relationships with others. Others link destructive parentification to mental illness in adulthood.
But in the case of the detained kids at the border, the involuntary separation from their parents—which, as my colleague Olga Khazan wrote last year, can cause some of the same childhood stress-related ailments as parentification—only makes the situation worse.
The children in these border facilities “are not developmentally equipped to deal with the immense task of caring for an infant in any circumstance, least of all these,” Louise Earley, a clinical psychologist and a lecturer at the U.K.’s University of Birmingham who has researched “parentified” children, wrote to me in an email. Not only are these kids simply not mature enough to undertake the immense responsibility of caring for a baby or toddler, they’re also struggling with the trauma of separation from their parents or any other caring adults, she noted. It’s a high-stress situation, “and with no effective support, the prospect that they will inflict unintentional harm or actual harm [on the smaller children in their care] as a result of their frustrations is likely.”
Much has been written over the years about the care that parentified children need later in life to recover psychologically. In 2011, for example, an article published in the Journal of Family Studies recommended that clinicians assess adults who were formerly parentified children with an eye on resolving the feelings of injustice they harbor toward their families. A feeling of unfairness, the article pointed out, could arise from the fact that their care of other family members was not acknowledged, supported, or reciprocated. Certainly, it stands to reason that the kids at the border who have by default ended up in charge of parenting smaller children will grow up with a sense of indignation concerning the time they spent thanklessly parenting other children in dirty detention centers. It’s unclear, however, whether that indignation will be directed at their parents, at the United States or its law enforcement, or elsewhere.
These children have taken on parental duties at an inappropriate age not because their parents or other guardians have been neglectful, but because they were, in many cases, forcefully removed from their parents or guardians by a government aiming to “send a message” to immigrants entering the country. Many of the children being detained came across the border with adults who would care for and comfort these children if only they hadn’t been separated under this policy.
Earley worries about the future effects this bleak situation may have on the children doing the parenting in the border facilities—and she worries about the immediate effects, too. “They will be unable to deal with the sense of responsibility and practical demands and will inevitably fail at the task, thus leaving an immeasurable sense of guilt and self-blame,” she wrote to me. And the effects won’t just wear off after a while, with some adjustment, she added. “Only with stability can psychological recovery begin, and only then in the context of a consistent, caring and responsive adult who can help them to begin to trust in relationships again.”