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The human brain takes about 25 years to fully grow, but the first few years are the most critical. New research suggests a traumatic upbringing or separation from a parent can be harmful, but early intervention can help.

Jody Castro and her 5-year-old granddaughter, Ccarlett, spend a lot of time together, just as Castro did with her own daughter. “One of the things that I realized now that I’m a grandparent is when you’re raising your children, you’re also teaching them how to raise your grandchildren,” Castro says.

But what happens when parents are absent or children are separated from them? According to research, that’s one of the biggest threats to early development — and that includes the separation of migrant families.

“If they’re not getting the emotional responsiveness they need or the cognitive stimulation they need, then regardless of whether the parent is there or not, that is still going to have a negative effect on the brain and behavioral development,” Professor Johanna Bick with the Laboratory of Early Experience says.

Bick says the trauma experienced by children who have been separated can manifest itself in later life in adults who have trouble expressing emotions, difficulty relating to others, or anxiety. She says caregivers should realize the impact neglect or separation can have on the brain. They should teach their children coping skills for stress, and always pay close attention to their kids’ signals.

It’s that back and forth between caregiver and child that can help kids develop the skills they need later in life.

Bick adds that parental interaction often helps children develop the internal regulation they need.