Many migrant families have finally been reunited with their children, but the parents of some got an unpleasant surprise: Their youngsters didn’t recognize them.
A considerable number also found their sons and daughters to be utterly changed—anxious, clingy, shell-shocked.
“Inside he carries a sadness,” said one father of his 3-year-old son, from whom he’d been separated for 3 months.
Last summer the Trump government quietly started separating children and families at the U.S.–Mexico border and this spring accelerated family separation with its “zero tolerance” policy for entering the U.S. illegally. Now faced with a court order to reunify these families, it has declared more than 900 parents “ineligible” for reunification and deported at least 463 others whose children remain in the U.S. with no known way to rejoin their families.
Although 2500-plus families may eventually be successfully reunited, more than half of them are still under threat of deportation and may have to choose whether to take their children or leave them behind. In the meantime, all of them are struggling to deal with this newest trauma on top of the violence and poverty they came to the U.S. to escape.
The science is clear
The effects of this separation will be lasting.
The ability to handle a threatening or frightening situation is critical to survival, and when a threat looms, the brain instantly readies us to deal with it. The steroid hormone cortisol and other stress hormones flood in, automatically putting us into freeze, fight, or flee mode.
Once the threat recedes, the stress levels in children with well-functioning stress systems return to normal. But forcible separation from a parent is no normal stressor, especially for young children whose brains are still developing. It delivers a totally different degree of trauma, one that produces toxic stress with a disproportionate punch.
It can alter their brain structure and stunt their cognitive development, and it can “shape the child’s body and brain to anticipate danger and prepare for the worst,” says Dylan Gee, who researches the impact of early-life trauma on the developing brain at Yale University.
In addition, such separation disrupts attachment—the safe, stable, caring relationship with a primary caregiver that is so essential to a child’s sense of self, safety, and trust, hence to healthy functioning. Many children may wonder what’s wrong with them or what they’ve done wrong that caused their parents to abandon them, points out Brenda Jones Harden, a professor of child development at the University of Maryland.
Usually, a parent’s presence can reduce a child’s level of cortisol. Hugging, snuggling, and kissing have a calming effect because they induce the release of oxytocin and buffer the stress response. But when there’s forced separation, there’s no parent present, and in the government shelters where children are housed (even the so-called “tender age” shelters for young children), no one is allowed to touch, hold, or pick them up, including their siblings.
What are the effects?
The greater the stress and the longer it lasts, the greater the risk to the child. Without appropriate intervention—so unaffordable and so hard to access in Spanish—the problems of forcible separation can last a lifetime. Here are some of them:
- Heightened risk of mental health difficulties (posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, ADHD, and behavior problems like anger, aggression, and withdrawal)
- A lifelong risk for heart, pulmonary, and liver disease, even cancer
- Hypervigilance, where the child is very reactive to the environment and can’t sit still or concentrate, which impairs learning
- Delayed development of executive functions including self-regulation and impulse control
- Atrophied cognitive functions such as memory and communication
- Regressive behavior (toileting issues, slowed speech development)
- Disturbed attachment (inability to experience healthy social relationships and boundaries as well as trust)
- Flashbacks and intrusive thoughts
- Physical complaints (sleep and eating troubles)
- Higher risk of drug addiction and suicide attempts
What can we do?
One of these days, some of these children—or children who’ve experienced similar traumas and toxic stress—may appear in your school or early childhood classroom. Here’s some advice garnered from the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families, Child Trends, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and the book Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma by Barbara Sorrels:
- Most important, provide consistent, sensitive, responsive care. Children who’ve experienced trauma need to be physically and psychologically close, even when they display inappropriate behavior. “The underlying message we want them to hear is that we will love them through their unlovely behavior. Rather than abandon them, we will hang in there with them and help them find new ways of behaving.” [Sorrels, p. 132]
- Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma
- Maintain regular eating and sleeping routines
- Show physical affection
- Show patience if a child cries excessively, regresses, develops severe separation anxiety, or shows difficulty with self-regulation. All of these are natural responses to childhood trauma
- Plan plenty of play and exercise to help metabolize stress hormones
- Listen and provide honest age-appropriate information. You can say, “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll let you know when I do.”
- Identify trauma reminders that may lead to trauma responses and teach the child coping strategies
What do you think?
Have you had any experience with children who’ve endured trauma or toxic stress? What tactics worked best for them?
Photo by Java Cafe