Timely Topics

Commentary from Dr. Richard Zeitner on Family Separations

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Although psychoanalysts around the globe applaud President Trump’s executive order just yesterday to end his “zero tolerance” policy, an action that had already separated approximately 2300 children from their families, this set of events remains one of America’s darkest and most shameful moments in history, and clearly the most egregious in contemporary times.  Furthermore, for these sets of actions to have been originally taken as justification for achieving national security, and delivering on his promises to bring about immigration control, all while Attorney General Jeff Sessions deviously uses Biblical scripture to give credence to these actions, is unimaginable in a nation whose very foundation has boasted the poet Emma Lazarus’s now famous lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, while inscribing this on our Statue of Liberty—that which sets in our New York harbor as a symbol for the freedom which this country has boasted throughout time.


Perhaps for us psychoanalysts, a group of highly trained mental health professionals, who pride ourselves in the understanding of the impact of early trauma, and especially in this set of circumstances, the damage that children can and will incur as a function of separation from their caretakers, we are not only appalled, but alarmed in so many ways. We know, for example, that in some cases these children will experience post-traumatic stress disorder, while some, although perhaps initially less evident, will incur a systemic vulnerability that leaves them constitutionally vulnerable to both mental health as well as physical health problems throughout their lives.


This forum is not the place to launch an exhaustive treatise on attachment theory, or the decades of research that exists on the residual effects of early separation between parents and children, or the adverse systemic effects of the prolonged surge of stress hormones on the human body, and the impact that early separation has on their release. Furthermore, we cannot expect for the average lay person to be knowledgeable about these intricacies of human functioning.  And yet, I believe that there exists an essence of what we analysts share with our fellow men and women— a sense of sadness and heartbreak about what has transpired with these kids and families, while at the same time, a horror that defies one’s sensibilities pertaining to what is simply right, and what is abjectly wrong and immoral. This is especially shocking when juxtaposing this set of events, all unfolding in contemporary times, while occurring in a truly modern country that is essentially educated, fundamentally good, and which has stood as a beacon of progressiveness since its very inception.


From now going forward, let us psychoanalysts, speak out about not only this travesty, but others that can and will happen in the future—openly, honestly, intelligently, and volubly—not just as professionals, but as standard bearers—and those who have both the courage and the fortitude to defy even the political machinery within this world that is so often misled.



Richard M. Zeitner, Ph.D. FABP, ABPP


North American Co-Chair of the IPA Committee on Family and Couple Psychoanalysis (COFAP)
Training and Supervising Analyst

Greater Kansas City Psychoanalytic Institute

Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry

University of Missouri Kansas City School of Medicine