Statement: Unaccompanied Adolescent Migrants Need Their Families,¬†Too

More than 11,000 unaccompanied migrant minors — mostly adolescents — are being held in government-funded shelters, most for far longer than the Flores rule allows.

Here’s why their health and well-being depend on their swift movement out of detention centers to be with family members here in the U.S.

More than a month after the deadline to reunify migrant families separated by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, more than 500 of those children remain in U.S. custody. That’s unconscionable.

But there is a bigger number that concerns adolescent advocates. More than 12,000 migrant children, mostly adolescents who arrived at the border alone, are currently being held in government-funded shelters for three times longer on average than the Flores rule allows.

A distressed 14-year-old, alone and apart from her family, doesn’t evoke the same level of concern as a 14-month-old forcibly separated from her parents. Yet although they were not ripped from their parents’ arms at the border, most of these adolescents’ stories of separation began with a different profound trauma—a 2,000-mile solo journey to the U.S.

The science of adolescent development can help us understand why separation and detention are so problematic for children, families, and society—and why it is so important that we do not overlook these adolescents in the conversation about family reunification. 

Adolescents’ bodies, brains, and abilities are changing dramatically across this stage of life that begins with puberty and ends in the 20s.[1][2] They are learning how to nurture healthy relationships with peers,[3] including romantic partners[4]. They are developing their identities and personal values, which support decision-making skills.[5] They are continuing to improve at controlling their emotions[6] and behavior[7]. These developmental “tasks” are best fostered in supportive family contexts that provide them with enough space to explore and practice, but also a safety net to catch them if they stumble.[8][9][10]  

Science is showing us that strong family ties are especially helpful in the context of recent immigration,[11] and particularly important in the countries and cultures of origin for the vast majority of adolescent migrants[12][13]. So while peers are increasingly important, adolescents who feel expected to assist, support, and respect the family typically fare better than those who do not.[14][15]      

Families also provide a natural source of resilience. For example, research has shown that positive family relationships during adolescence can reduce the negative effects of early childhood deprivation and stress on the developing brain.[16] This is especially important considering the trauma many adolescents coming to this country have already faced. In 2017, 95 percent of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border were from three countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. These countries have among the highest murder rates in the world. Contrary to arguments from the Trump administration that unaccompanied minors are gang members themselves, many are making near-impossible journeys to escape from gangs. These adolescents are faced with the dire choice of joining a gang or becoming a “girlfriend” to a gang member, being killed, or fleeing.

Fleeing is no guarantee of safety. Migrant adolescents travel thousands of miles with little money and few belongings. The dangerous journey is particularly perilous for girls—a 2010 Amnesty International report found that 60 percent of girls and women migrating to the U.S. from Central America had been sexually assaulted along the way. This increases their likelihood of becoming parents themselves during this incredibly vulnerable time, which profoundly impacts their development as well as the development of their offspring. Girls who have attempted the journey report facing the risks of being sent back, forced into prostitution, or killed.

These and other physical and psychological stressors experienced during migration, compounded by separation from family members and extended stays in detention facilities, may have significant negative effects on the developing brain. We know that the adolescent brain is indeed still developing[17] and that the widespread neural changes of adolescence are critical to health and wellbeing.

This period of change and plasticity means that adolescents are particularly sensitive to significant adversity, and that during this time such experiences can have especially negative effects. But this sensitivity also creates a window of opportunity for positive growth potential. With the right kinds of support, adolescents’ natural tendency to explore and learn from their environments[18] can help create healthy transitions out of detention and into a positive future. This is why it is so important that Health and Human Services speed their vetting process and hasten the release of all migrant children in their custody to family and friends here in the U.S.

Adolescence is a distinct phase of life that presents unique vulnerabilities and opportunities. Although the negative impact of migration and detention will be different depending on the adolescent, one conclusion is certain. The biological, psychological, and social changes that happen during adolescence are vitally important; adolescents trying to learn and grow from them should be in supportive family environments—not in cages.

Jennifer Pfeifer is a Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Developmental Social Neuroscience Lab at the University of Oregon. Adriana Galván is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory at UCLA. Both serve on the Leadership Team of the Center for the Developing Adolescent.



[1]Dahl, R. E., Allen, N. B., Wilbrecht, L., & Suleiman, A. B. (2018). Importance of investing in adolescence from a developmental science perspective. Nature, 554(7693), 441.

[2]Patton, G. C., Sawyer, S. M., Santelli, J. S., Ross, D. A., Afifi, R., Allen, N. B., ... & Kakuma, R. (2016). Our future: a Lancet commission on adolescent health and wellbeing. The Lancet, 387(10036), 2423-2478.

[3] Brown, B. B., & Larson, J. (2009). Peer relationships in adolescence. Handbook of Adolescent Psychology, vol. 2, pp. 74-103.

[4]Suleiman, A. B., Galván, A., Harden, K. P., & Dahl, R. E. (2017). Becoming a sexual being: The ‘elephant in the room’ of adolescent brain development. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 25, 209-220.

[5]Pfeifer, J. H., & Berkman, E. T. (2018). The development of self and identity: Neural evidence and implications for a value-based choice perspective on motivated behavior. Child Development Perspectives.

[6]Silvers, J. A., McRae, K., Gabrieli, J. D., Gross, J. J., Remy, K. A., & Ochsner, K. N. (2012). Age-related differences in emotional reactivity, regulation, and rejection sensitivity in adolescence. Emotion, 12(6), 1235.

[7]Gestsdottir, S., & Lerner, R. M. (2008). Positive development in adolescence: The development and role of intentional self-regulation. Human Development, 51(3), 202-224.

[8]Youngblade, L. M., Theokas, C., Schulenberg, J., Curry, L., Huang, I. C., & Novak, M. (2007). Risk and promotive factors in families, schools, and communities: A contextual model of positive youth development in adolescence. Pediatrics, 119(Supplement 1), S47-S53.

[9]Kerr, M., & Stattin, H. (2000). What parents know, how they know it, and several forms of adolescent adjustment: further support for a reinterpretation of monitoring. Developmental Psychology, 36(3), 366-380.

[10]Lamborn, S. D., Mounts, N. S., Steinberg, L., & Dornbusch, S. M. (1991). Patterns of competence and adjustment among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful families. Child Development, 62(5), 1049-1065.

[11]Fuligni, A. J. (1998). The adjustment of children from immigrant families. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 7(4), 99-103.

[12]García, H. A., Coll, C. G., Erkut, S., Alarcón, E., & Tropp, L. R. (2000). Family values of Latino adolescents. Making invisible Latino adolescents visible: A critical approach to Latino diversity, 239-264.

[13]Fuligni, A. J., Tseng, V., & Lam, M. (1999). Attitudes toward family obligations among American adolescents with Asian, Latin American, and European backgrounds. Child Development, 70(4), 1030-1044.

[14]Telzer, E. H., & Fuligni, A. J. (2009). Daily family assistance and the psychological well-being of adolescents from Latin American, Asian, and European backgrounds. Developmental Psychology, 45(4), 1177.

[15]Telzer, E. H., Gonzales, N., & Fuligni, A. J. (2014). Family obligation values and family assistance behaviors: Protective and risk factors for Mexican–American adolescents’ substance use. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43(2), 270-283.

[16]Whittle, S., Vijayakumar, N., Simmons, J.G., Dennison, M., Schwartz, O.S., Pantelis, C., Sheeber, L., Byrne, M.L., & Allen, N.B. (2017). Role of positive parenting in the association between neighborhood social disadvantage and brain development across adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry, 74 (8), 824-832. 

[17]Mills, K. L., Goddings, A. L., Herting, M. M., Meuwese, R., Blakemore, S. J., Crone, E. A., ... & Tamnes, C. K. (2016). Structural brain development between childhood and adulthood: Convergence across four longitudinal samples. Neuroimage, 141, 273-281.

[18]Davidow, J. Y., Foerde, K., Galván, A., & Shohamy, D. (2016). An upside to reward sensitivity: the hippocampus supports enhanced reinforcement learning in adolescence. Neuron, 92(1), 93-99.

Posted on August 30, 2018