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  • Immigration Trauma in Parent Child Separation: What You Need to Know

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    A 1997, mustard colored Toyota car swiftly parks perpendicular in the airport drop off lane. The guard taps the car’s bumper to alert overstaying vehicles to keep the traffic moving.


    “Hoy, diretso na. Kanina ka pa dyan.” (keep going you’ve been there for a while)

    Old Toyota car depicting going to the airport


    The woman rushed to grab her luggage and a box tapped with yellowish duct-tape. Her child in the backseat, unaware. But the  other adult assures the child, “ sandali lang si mommy, babalik din yan.” (it won’t take mommy long, she’ll be right back).


    The woman all-knowing of what is to come, rushed to kiss her child, sniffing the hair on his head as if this memory can be bottled into her heart.


    This is a scenario all too familiar in the NAIA airport in the Philippines. I’ve seen them many times. The mother shows a brave face to her child and quickly whisk to the other side to let her sorrowful tears be dried by the humid wind. 


    It’s a pain, I, too, am familiar with. Once, I had to leave my own child not to forfeit my mother’s petition. I was crippled in the pain of this separation, a choice immigrant parents need to make for the so-called brighter future.


    But this choice has a cost when the trauma of this separation is not recovered. For some families who were able to nurture the bonding, parent beyond the distance, and the adult (left-behind) was able to provide a consistent narrative to the child-in-waiting, can go unscratched.


    But for some, the break and disruption of this bond goes beyond adulthood & bleeds into relationships that you hold dear.


    ** I will focus on American immigration in this post even though the experience of an OFW travelling elsewhere in the world is similar.




    A traumatic event is a scenario where one felt helpless and every capacity to cope is overshadowed by the event too heavy for the nervous system to handle.


    Such an event can be an abuse of a parent, sexual assault, watching someone be beaten to death ..etc.


    In my belief, trauma is defined by the traumatized and therefore, a traumatic event can have a more fluid description.


    A car accident can be traumatic for one person but not for the other.


    Attachment Theory started with studying the bond between a mother and her child. This research has been pivotal in understanding human bond and love. It teaches us that the relationship between a child and his caregiver becomes his/her internal working map from which he based his future attachment relationships with.


    Of course, our attachment styles can change and can be flexible but we also know that in traumatic bonds, these maps become rigid. For example, if a child had been abused physically and repeatedly, this child would have to find a way to adapt with his situation- his adaptation could be in the form of detaching or expecting the world to be a dangerous place so that he can be well prepared every moment. 




    Filipino culture enjoys close proximity. Proximity means love. You notice this with elementary school girls holding hands as they walk and boys with their arms around each other (akbay).


    Filipino mothers are nurturing and keep close their children to their chest. It is not uncommon for mothers to co-sleep with their children well beyond 7 years old. And, the spoon-feeding phase seems to never go out of style for a Filipino mom. Mothers in lower socio economic status are likely to breastfeed longer (also for economic reasons) and share their plate with their child. In rural Philippines, the use of the hands to “subo” the child is still a common phenomenon. In short separation, a child may be given her mother’s unwashed shirt. Similar to the sniffing that a sorrowful mother does knowingly leaving her child for days to come.


    Closeness is the language of love between the Filipino parent and her child.


    When a mother leaves for immigration her scent leaves with her. There is a difference depending on the child’s age as to the impact of this separation. The younger the child, the more impactful to the bonding. This is contrary to what many Filipino families believe, often you hear-


    Bata pa siya noon. Hindi pa niya alam (he was still young. He doesn’t know-no memories).


    The Stranger-Situation experiment tells us that children as young as 1 year old- remembers. Your memory of events is not tested on whether you can verbally remember such events. Before about 2 years old, we have implicit memories.


    Memories stored in our brain and bodies that we usually can’t consciously access.  Regression in Hypnotherapy may be useful in accessing these memories. To learn more read: Hypnotherapy for Filipino Women: Is It Effective?

    Interested in learning about the cultural gap in the Filipinx, check out the Free Webinar below, Speak the Pinoy Love Language, click the image for access.

    speak the pinoy love language


    Unbeknownst to the child who dropped off her mother in NAIA, the scent and the warmth of her  body that morning,  will be the last for the many days and months to come (OFWs may have years of separation with their children). 


    Days of wailing, seeking and yearning for a love lost is excruciating for a child. Without complete capacity to bring language to his pain, he will have to find a way to adapt, otherwise, the fast beatings of his heart will do him no good. 


    Usually, children (older) may be inundated with reasons on why such separation is good in the long run-


    Para sa kinabukasan mo (for the sake of your future).Filipina mother kissing son before departing at the airport for work in abroad


    Noble reasons, nevertheless, but does little to a child’s aching heart.


    When a young child reconciles with his mother, the tell-tale signs of the impact of separation can be seen:


    A wailing cry that can still be comforted by the mother’s presence is promising.


    A child that cannot be consoled by the mother may have become too anxious that even if the object of her love has returned, her nervous system has not returned to normalcy. Her anxiety that her mother might be out of her sight again takes over.


    A child who had a hard time recognizing the mother is a wailing child inside but whose pain in separation had been turned into detachment.


    All these children upon reconciliation need time to adjust and reclaim safety with the mother (or the father). But the detached child needs more re-calibration of the bond that have been disrupted. Without this, the child can remain detached and these feelings of abandonment can continue through adulthood. If need support, schedule a complimentary consult here.




    Little is said about a mother’s pain during separation. Being in a foreign land, experiencing social status demotion, homesickness and pakikisama with relatives you know little about can be highly distressing for an immigrating mother.


    The demotion in social status in particular to Filipino professionals can be a hard pill to swallow.


    The privilege of being someone respected to being a nobody, as many Filipino elders like to recount in their animated stories,  can make the immigration process a lonely place.


    I was respected lawyer in the Philippines but when I came here, I was a nobody!


    Nevertheless, the immigrating mother’s eye is focus on the price of a better future for her family.


    Her child’s scent, the photos she keep folded in her wallet is what keeps her stamina alive.


    She counts the days until she is reunited with her child. Her dreams are filled with airport reunions, a new home, a car she can call her own.


    All these material things are a reminder of what she had to give up to gain more.




    The concept of time is on the side of the immigrating mother and falls short in the child’s peripheral vision. What this means is that the immigrating mother knows the time frame it’ll take to be reunited with the child, the latter does not.


    The younger the child the less capacity to understand the concept of time.  A three day separation can seem eternity for a baby. One month is forever for a toddler and many more months can feel like abandonment. Fortunately, in the past decade, families have Viber (app) and Facebook messenger to connect with each other. Before then, children separated from their parents don’t see their parents until the day of reconciliation. What a pain!


    Mothers who have the best intention for her family needs to know that in her search for economic stability and a brighter future, theSad Filipina mother at the airport leaving to work abroad cost of separation can be costly.


    To remediate this, it’s important to explain to the child in developmentally appropriate language  what is to come and what is to be expected. Older children need this as well.


    For younger children, a visual representation of time, as in a calendar, counting of days are useful especially when they can control elements of this. For example, creating a chart where the child can peel of number of days left before reunification.  A parent can use post-it notepads to write numbers down on a chart.


    For older children, pre-writing letters per week that the child can open and read can remediate this attachment disruption. 


    Pre-recording videos per week is another suggestions for both younger and older children.


    It is equally important for the adult left-behind to be prepare stories to tell the child when she’s missing mommy. This does not include stating a list of why she needs to immigrant for a brighter future, as in-


    Mommy’s working so she can buy food.

    Di ba you like Barbie, oh so mommy needs to work so she can buy it for you.


    This is the need of the parent, not the child’s.


    It’s important for the parent staying with the child to allow the child to express feelings of loneliness, even a revolt against being left behind.


    Co-regulating with the child is an essential skill to help soothe emotions that cannot be readily expressed in words.


    It’s like being the warm blanket for a child shivering from the coldness and pain of separation.




    During the separation, a child needs to know that her pain and wails of her heart are heard. A child needs to know that there is one person who will never leave (usually the staying parent) and a continued reassurance that the absence of the other parent is but temporary.


    A child needs to know that her grief is real and that no economic reasoning can make sense to her longing heart.A Filipino child staring at the airplanes at the airport


    In this regard, children can be given space to express the wounding of their hearts through grief rituals, writing letters, art, and any other forms of expression that becomes an extension to the child’s internal world.


    Grief rituals could be a time where the child is allowed to sob for a particular moment in time, for example, when a child wakes up for about 15 minutes. It’s a time where an adult holds the child physically and serve as an emotional container for her outpouring feelings.


    Of course, with the capability of technology, consistent calls of the absent parent is crucial. The word is consistent because abandoned feelings have a feature of instability and a ritualized calling schedule can help foster a sense of predictability, which can later be felt in the form of safety. 


    A child needs to feel safe in his world again.


    Related Blog Posts:

    Filipino Parenting: Raising Emotionally Resilient Children

    Story Therapy: The Art and Science of Healing

    Filipino Parenting: Can We Raise Well-Rounded Children Without the Mumo (ghost)?




    Many immigrant parents shower their children with material things because they serve as evidence for the reality of their Great American Dream.


    It’s hard to fault immigrant parents with this. Although we know all too well that children long for their parent’s attention and affection over anything money can buy. 


    Filipino parents raised in the Philippines know that economic disadvantages have serious consequences. Filipino scholars have written about the Great Divide in the Philippines and how climbing the ladder of privilege, whatever it takes is an option that a responsible parent should always take.


    Regardless, the bond broken with Filipino American children is painful in both ways. 


    Filipino parents feel forgotten and Filipino American children feel unseen and unfelt by their own parents, prescribed with a list to be the forbearer of the sacrifices they didn’t ask for themselves.


    Repairing the bond would mean going back to feel the pain together. 

    Repairing the bond means crying for the lost time-together.

    Repairing the bond means being familiar to each other’s pain then and now.

    Repairing the bond means taking a chance on the other.


    It might be helpful to find a good-fit therapist if you feel the need to be supported in this process. If you’re interested in seeing me, you can schedule a complimentary consult. 




    The trauma of immigration does not begin to heal from the time of reconciliation but the many days before, during and after it.


    Children may not recall memories of being left behind but it doesn’t mean that these memories do not exists.


    It is possible for some families to be unscratched with these separation, not two families are alike. 


    If you’ve been separated with your child (or your parent) no matter how short of a time and find your relationship difficult to say the least, consult a therapist who can help facilitate release of this trauma experience.

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