Separation as Existential Trauma



Claudia Gold, MD

Crying GirlThe face of a two-year-old Honduran girl, dwarfed by the adults who only appear as legs in the photo, communicates undeniable anguish. Used to represent the horror of children separated from their parents at the US-Mexican border, the photo became a lightning rod for controversy when it turned out that this particular child was not actually separated from her mother. In an interview for CBS News, the border patrol officer involved in the incident explained that they asked the mother to put her daughter down so she could be searched. He explained,"It took less than two minutes. As soon as the search was finished, she immediately picked the girl up, and the girl immediately stopped crying" (CBS News 2018).

The fact that the girl recovered immediately shows that she has accumulated a reservoir of experience with her mother coming back. Rather than falling apart, she was immediately comforted. The very presence of her mother appears to have given her the skills to manage her distress. In an instant, she is OK. 

But when separations are beyond a young child’s ability to manage, the capacity to recover in the face of disruption is compromised. Time is of the essence. With too much time, “stress” is transformed into “trauma.” 

Pediatrician turned psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott captures the role of time in child development in a way that seems particularly poignant in light of current events. He describes how a young child comes to have a sense of himself in relation to the world around him: 

“It is perhaps worthwhile trying to formulate this in a way that gives the time factor due weight. The feeling of the mother’s existence lasts x minutes. If the mother is away more than x minutes, then the imago fades, and along with this the baby’s capacity to use the symbol of the union ceases. The baby is distressed, but this distress is soon mended because the mother returns in x+y minutes. In x+y minutes the baby has not become altered. But in x+y+z minutes the baby has become traumatized. Trauma implies that the baby has experienced a break in life’s continuity… [his behavior] now becomes organized to defend against a repetition of ‘unthinkable anxiety’” (Winnicott 2005, 131).

When the Honduran girl’s mother picked her up, her rapid recovery reflects an experience Winnicott describes with the lovely phrase “going on being.” The countless experiences of the mother coming back, in typical day-to-day interactions, literally builds a child’s sense of self. The “unthinkable anxiety” he references is the profound unraveling that accompanies a loss of bearings, a loss of sense of self. 

While unfortunate that the photograph was misrepresented, it does illustrate a point about the actual separations known to have occurred in large numbers. Young children rely completely on their parents to hold them together. Self-regulation, the ability to manage on one’s own, is a developmental process that occurs over countless moment-to-moment interactions in co-regulation with primary caregivers. Separation beyond a young child’s ability to manage represents, from a developmental perspective, a fundamental threat to existence. 


CBS News. 2018. "Crying girl in iconic image was never separated from mother, ICE says." CBS News.June 22. Accessed June 28, 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/border-patrol-agent-involved-dramatic-photo-girl-crying-at-border-speaks-out/.

Winnicott, D. W. 2005. Playing and Reality.New York: Routledge Classics.

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