This Is What Pediatricians Have to Say About Donald Trump’s Family Separation Policy (and the Lasting Effect It Could Have on Kids)
Immigrant children are being taken away from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, and they might never recover from the trauma, according to the website PRI. A pediatric doctor who recently visited one of the shelters where the children are being held believes this to be true, and so do many Americans. In recent days, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy has come under fire — explore why.
Government officials said that nearly 2,000 children have been separated from either their parents or guardians from April 19, 2018, through the end of May 2018. In fact, 658 children were separated from 638 parents from May 6 to19 alone, said a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official — and most of the children are from Central America.
Although Trump, Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions support the policy, Democrats and Republicans have turned this into bipartisan concern. Republicans are trying to figure out a “compromise” immigration bill that would enable children to be held in the same facility as their parents or guardians if they are detained. This, in turn, might just end up with both parents and children being detained for longer.
The doctor’s visit
Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says children can suffer long-term trauma even from a short-term separation from their parents, according to PRI. When Kraft visited a child detention center — overseen by the federal Office for Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services — recently, she went into a toddler room filled with kids from
“The staff were by her, but they weren’t allowed to hold her, comfort her,” Kraft said. “So she was just crying and wailing. Her little arms and legs were just pounding, and she was inconsolable. And we all knew why. We knew that she had been taken from her mother, and she wanted her mother.”
Kraft says scientists have already measured the response of the brain to these kinds of stressors — and that there are two kinds of stress, positive and toxic. Positive stress, such as when a kid has a temper tantrum — is fleeting.
“What happens in their body and in their brain is that their inflammatory markers, their fight-or-flight hormones, rise. And then in the presence of an adult who can be caring and comforting, they fall and they’re redirected, and the brain actually becomes resilient from that type of stress interaction,” Kraft said. “And we know that only happens in the presence of a loving and caring adult for a young child.”
But toxic stress, which produces the same fight-or-flight hormones, is dangerous — and it can last a long time. , prompting the same fight-or-flight hormones. But in this case, the stress is dangerous, and the damage can be long-lasting.
“Without that parent to help buffer that reaction, these chemicals go on to destroy the architecture of that child’s developing brain,” Kraft said. “They destroy the synapses that occur that result in the ability for that child to love, to learn, to develop. So separation even for a short time is something that’s toxic to a child’s developing brain.”
These children’s toxic stress can also cause developmental delays — such as speech and gross motor skills — which can mirror characteristics of the autism spectrum. And these children might have increased likelihood of developing heart disease, cancer, obesity, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The broader implications
Kraft said that the damage from this toxic stress can have even broader ramifications. “What happens is that overall, this toxic stress really robs these children of the ability to love and to learn and to do well in school and to graduate from high school and to go on to college and to be successful,” Kraft said. “And later on in life, it robs them of their capacity to be healthy grown adults.”
Many of the children in the detention centers are extremely young, which makes them particularly susceptible to toxic stress because their brains are developing at their fastest rates during this time. “In [that] group, if a child is exposed to love, these synapses for learning, for language, for love become very strong, and what gets pruned away, later on, are the bad experiences, the upsets, the fear, the anxiety,” Kraft said. “In children who grow up with toxic stress, they never make those connections. And what stays and remains are anxiety, are fear, are other difficulties that go on to really rob that child of the ability to grow into a healthy adult.”
What we can do
Many U.S. kids that have been through the foster care system have experienced this kind of toxic stress, Kraft said. And they have responded well a treatment known as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. “There are things we can do for these kids,” she says. “But it it’s much easier to build a strong child than to repair a child who’s had this type of damage.”
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