Separating Immigrant Children from Parents

This child was not removed from her mother at the border, but her cries demonstrate the stress these children are under even without being separated from their parents. Time Magazine cover.

This isn’t a political blog. And yet there are times when it’s vital to speak out and use whatever platforms we have available. This is such a time.

The US is in the midst of a moral crisis as the Trump Administration continues a border policy that results in the systematic abuse of immigrant children. Many Americans, of both parties and of all faiths and walks of life, are horrified, and we are doing what we can to support these children and their families by sharing our outrage, time, talent, and treasure.

There are some people who insist that these children are just fine. And physically, that may be true. But that comment conveys a lack of understanding about the emotional development of a child and the impact of extreme stress on these young lives. That’s what I hope to address in this post.

I used to work as a mental health counselor for children ages 0-5. Many of my cute little clients were from unstable environments where they were exposed to periods of prolonged stress. My goal as a counselor was to work with parents to reduce stress levels for the child by enhancing stability and predictability in the home, by fostering a sense of safety and trust in caregivers, and by strengthening the parent-child bond. This was the work of creating healthy, happy, socially successful children.

A bit of biology:

Under stress, the human brain is flooded with a hormone called cortisol, which puts the brain on high-alert for a fight, flight, or withdrawal response. In well-adjusted adults, once a stressful event passes, the cortisol levels go down and the brain resumes normal functioning.

Unlike adults, children don’t have the life experience to manage high levels of stress successfully. They require the support of a nurturing caregiver to process stress and regulate emotions (to manage that cortisol). This is often accomplished through cuddles, soft assurances, and tender minding. Over time, this repetitive loving support teaches children how to manage stress on their own.

Why is this important?

Because children’s brains are still developing. Young children who are exposed to prolonged stress can experience a PERMANENT elevation in the baseline cortisol level in their brains. This can cause difficulty with emotional regulation, difficulty calming down, hyperactivity, withdrawal, and difficulty with concentration and learning. These challenges can persist into adulthood and make life much harder to manage successfully. The good news is that prevention is as simple as a loving parent.

(For more on baby-brains, here’s an old post called Why Love Matters).

Many of the immigrant children entering the US come from some of the most dangerous countries in the world. After a frightening journey, they arrive in an unfamiliar land where they don’t speak the language and don’t know where they will end up. They are severely stressed to begin with, and the only thing that they have to hold onto, the only thing that gives them any sense of safety and dependability is mom or dad’s hand. When that is ripped away, trauma is piled on top of trauma.

The US immigration policy of separating children from their parents is damaging to these children and shameful on the part of the US government. It subjects mothers, fathers, teenagers, children, and babies to unnecessary trauma and debilitating stress.

Please be aware, too, that many of these people are seeking asylum, which is LEGAL in the US. Under the current policy, they are considered guilty until proven innocent.

And this crisis is not over by any means:

1) Though children are no longer being removed from their parents at the border (for now), there are thousands of children who have been separated from their parents, and there are no concrete plans in place for reunification.

2) The Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy is incarcerating parents regardless of their family circumstances, and by law, children cannot be jailed for more than 20 days. What happens when the 20 days are up?

3) Keep an eye out for efforts to terminate parental rights and put young children up for adoption. Parental rights can be terminated if a parent doesn’t keep in contact with their child. Deported parents who don’t know where their children are or parents who are unable to maintain a relationship due to incarceration are at high risk of permanently losing their children.

A tough immigration policy does not need to be cruel.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” – Hebrews 13:2

Baby Brains – Why Love Matters

baby-22194_640

I usually post about the world of writing and books, though on occasion my old pre-writing vocation pops up in my opinions and commentary. Since my previous post broached the topic of brains, I thought it might be easy fun to share something from my previous life – an article I wrote on Baby Brains, based partly on the wonderful book Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt.

Why Love Matters

Happy_babyPart One: The difference between a baby and a squirrel

In recent years, brain researchers have pretty much resolved the nature-nurture debate when it comes to human beings. They’ve concluded that we are influenced by both.

Most of us who are parents understand the contributions of “nature.” Our infants are born with their own little personalities and temperaments. BUT “nurture” plays a gigantic part in who we ultimately become. And that’s because there is a big difference between a baby and a squirrel.

A squirrel is a squirrel. A squirrel in China isn’t so different from a squirrel in England or Oregon. Squirrels can be depended on to do squirrelly things – raid bird feeders, climb trees, store food. They don’t need much training or feedback to be successful squirrels.

A human baby on the other hand has to be highly adaptable. We are the ultimate in social animals, born to particular parents, families, communities, and nations. Layer family expectations and parenting styles on top of economic, religious and cultural differences, and it’s no wonder we are all so unique!

Which brings me to the baby brain.

Our need to adapt at a very young age to different social expectations requires human baby brains to be the least “hard-wired” of all baby brains in the animal kingdom, including squirrels. Interestingly, this means that most of the brain’s cortex develops AFTER birth. The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that controls little things like thinking and language! Here we make meaning of our personal experience of the world, enabling us to interact effectively with others.

It makes sense that this interactive part of our brain develops through social contact. Who we are as social and emotional beings progresses through our interaction with the people we encounter in our first 2-3 years of life. Therefore, our earliest experiences as babies have a much greater impact on who we are as adults than many realize. It is as babies that we first learn what do with our feelings and start to absorb our experiences in a way that will affect our later behavior and thinking.

9477327336_3264f050a6_bPart Two: Baby stress management

Early social experiences shape the developing brain and determine how stress will be responded to in the future. Life is full of stress, you might say, and shouldn’t infants and babies get the picture early?

A small amount of stress is normal and unavoidable, but babies aren’t born knowing how to manage stress, so expecting them to figure it out on their own is a little silly—like expecting someone to learn French without hearing the language. How to manage stress is one of those skills that we teach through social interaction with our infants.

Babies learn that they can tolerate a certain amount of stress once they are confident that an attentive adult is available to help them. Once a baby has repeatedly experienced care from a responsive caregiver, stress hormones are less likely to flood the brain when the baby experiences minor frustrations. The baby’s little brain says, “No big deal. I can handle this, because I know I will get help if I need it.”

download (2)Part Three: Why you never forget how to ride a bicycle.

Can you imagine what life would be like if every time you rode a bicycle, made a sandwich, or used your TV remote you had to learn how to do it all over again? We wouldn’t be able to function. The brain handles this by creating templates, an amazing library of billions of bits of information that we access constantly and at a moment’s notice.

Babies’ brains are primed to absorb information at an incredible rate. Their libraries collect important how-to guidelines such as how to pick up a Cheerio with two fingers or empty a bin of toys. The libraries also file away very subtle observations of facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and the emotional meanings associated with them.

Every experience a baby has is stored in the huge warehouse of the brain and forms the basis for how baby perceives the world – as safe and loving, or as scary and unreliable. The more a baby has a particular experience the stronger the template becomes. That’s awesome when they are good experiences, terrible when they aren’t – because it takes ten times as many good experiences to create a happy template over an old crappy one.

Mother-Child_face_to_facePart Four: Why love matters.

Children need a satisfying experience of dependency before they can become truly independent and self-managing. This ability comes from having relationships with people who respond to their needs and help them handle their feelings.

Oh, Diana, you might say. We’re going to have all these spoiled children running around because their parents are trying to create happy brain templates! Don’t worry. Healthy emotional brain templates lead to healthy emotional and behavioral skills. Stressed emotional templates lead to difficulties handling feelings, which then can lead to difficulties with behavior. It’s all connected.

By 10 months of age, baby brains have the capacity to store lasting templates filled with emotion. These templates form the library for emotional regulation. At this age, baby is already observing how his parent or caregiver handles feelings and is making those strategies his own. He is already absorbing caregiver strategies for calming and self-soothing as well as absorbing negative experiences and expectations that trigger stress. These templates become a guide for behavior later when the caregiver is not available to help the child through the joys and struggles of growing up.

And that’s why love matters ❤

Here’s the Link to Sue Gerhardt’s book Why Love Matters on Amazon.

Image credits:
Sleeping father and baby: pexels.com
Pink baby: commons.wikimedia.org
Twins: flickr.com
Smiling baby boy: flickr.com
Mother and baby laughing: pixabay.com