Child victims of toxic stress face a long road to healing

Reuniting families separated at the U.S. border is only a start.

As a country, we heard the children separated from their families at America’s southern border cry inconsolably for their mothers and fathers. And as a country, we waited anxiously as bureaucratic, political and logistical problems have postponed reunions.

Now, as families are slowly beginning to be reunited, we are witnessing reunions that may surprise some. According to reports, mothers — some of whom had been separated from their young children for as long as 4 months — were sometimes rebuked by those children. One mother reported that her 3-year-old didn’t recognize her. Another said that her 3-year-old pushed her away and called for the social worker at the shelter where she had been housed.

How are we to interpret these reports? Are these bad parents, as we were told when the families were separated in the first place?

Jerome Kagan, a psychologist at Harvard, has likened observing children’s behavior to looking at the sky without a telescope. You have to look deeper, he once said. Science can help us look deeper and understand these ambivalent reunions between young children and their parents.

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Decades of research on the biology and behavior of attachment, or the bonds that children form with the primary people who care for them, have shown that when these bonds are secure — that is, when infants and young children can trust that their caregivers will be there for them — the children are more likely to grow up to be socially and academically competent, and to develop the skills needed for agency, autonomy and self-control.

We may have thought that once families are reunited, everything will be okay. But the reunion is just the beginning of a long process of healing. Children at the border display a well-documented wariness when reunited, the same kind of ambivalent or dismissive reaction many children show after much briefer separations in research study settings. They may mistrust their seemingly unreliable caregivers and instead cling to the small bit of certainty they now have — such as the social worker who cared for them or the other children with whom they were confined.

Forced separations are extremely stressful, and when stress is strong, frequent and/or prolonged, and occurs without the buffering support of adults to whom the children are attached, the stress can be toxic.

Stress can be benign or even beneficial, but toxic stress puts children into a chronic flight or fight response that can compromise their immune function, damage their physical health and undermine the development of brain networks that support their executive function skills. Executive function skills are a set of attention-regulation skills that are important for conscious, goal-directed problem-solving: they allow for emotion regulation and provide a cognitive foundation for learning and achievement. Exposing children to toxic stress at a young age, and disrupting their brain development, puts them at risk for lifelong difficulties in nearly all areas of their lives.

Toxic stress does not have to be “fatal,” however. We can help children and families recover. But to do so, we must ensure that these reunions take place as soon as possible and that the children and their parents receive therapeutic help in reconnecting and adjusting to their new lives.

Whatever desperation led these parents to make the dangerous trek to our borders, our policies and practices are now contributing to the trauma they and their children have experienced. Looking at their experiences through the lens of science, the plight of these families and their children is as much of a humanitarian crisis as the situation faced by children in war-torn and distressed regions around the globe.

The crisis at our borders is one to which we, as Americans, have directly contributed, and we owe these children and their families the treatment needed to mitigate the long-term consequences of the damage incurred.

This story about child separations and toxic stress was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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