Opinion: Cultural Trend of Sending Children Back to Homeland Can Cause Trauma

By: Kalpana Asok, M.A., M.F.T.

Click here to read this article on The Mercury News  (Special to the Mercury News, February 2011)

At this very moment there are thousands of people dealing with severe trauma completely unbeknownst to them.

As a psychotherapist, I feel compelled to alert families, and young immigrant couples in particular, to the peril of separating the child from the parents at a very young age. I refer to the practice of young immigrant parents sending their child, often under age 1, thousands and thousands of miles away to be raised by grandparents in another country for an extended length of time.

Working in the culturally diverse Bay Area, I have had opportunities to hear about, witness and deal with the long-term effects of this phenomenon. Sadly, it is not a decreasing trend. And my experience is that the parents often minimize and deny the inherent trauma of the separation.

I have observed this practice more often in communities and cultures that have traditional values associated with extended families and multiple mothering. Young immigrant families sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by caring for their baby in a culture far from their own. By “far,” I mean distance both in terms of geography and of emotional and cultural difference.

The child is temporarily raised by grandparents or extended family while the young parents work and study toward a better quality of life — more time and money and the long-term interests of the family. In my experience, this separation happens more often in Asian, South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures.

In these cultures, almost everyone knows someone who has sent their child “back home” for a few months to a year or two.

As cozy as the phrase “back home” may be, the reality is that the child is very far away, and the parents and child cannot be together for months at a time.

The parents do consider the physical safety of the child, the trustworthiness of the grandparents, the probability of the child being surrounded by a network of loving family members, the difficulty of trusting child care here, and the parents’ own heartache. What they do not often account for is the break in the attachment of the child — first from the parents, and then again from the grandparents.

The difficulty in making this decision may not leave room for the parents to carefully consider the emotional cost. Parents may be overwhelmed by immigration procedures, the separation from their own families, the task of raising children without the family network they depended on, and by financial pressure. They may be unable at the time to consider the emotional life of the child.

There is often contact during the separation by phone, by video conference or by brief visits. These visits further traumatize both parents and child. Sometimes the mother realizes that the child does not remember her and leaves before the child reattaches to her. Sometimes the parents report that the child will refuse to talk to them on the phone. There have even been instances in which the mother and child no longer have a language in common — the child forgets the mother tongue and adopts the language of the grandparents.

I consider these children twice disrupted in the attachment process, and would expect them to have much in common with adopted children. A conscious awareness of all the factors involved may not change every individual decision, but more conscious awareness of the trauma for the child may lead to a more balanced decision.