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