“Not only have they been through trauma in their home countries, but often just crossing over the border itself is awesome. You know, very traumatic. And then they get here and are separated from their primary caregiver. I mean, it’s just …”

Georgia King, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice who also conducts clinical assessments of asylum seekers, couldn’t finish her thought about the more than 2,300 children who have been isolated from their families in the recent weeks since Attorney General Jeff Sessions, under orders from President Trump, came down hard on undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border of the United States.

The so-called “zero tolerance” policy meant most adults fleeing their troubled homelands in Central America as well as Mexico — many seeking asylum in the U.S. — would be arrested, charged with the crime of illegally entering this country and locked up in designated detention centers. 

Meanwhile, their children would be taken away from them and imprisoned elsewhere, tearing apart hundreds of migrant families.

Separation scenes of crying toddlers looking up at federal agents handcuffing their equally distraught mothers and fathers have flooded TV screens across the country. Banner headlines in newspapers and magazines have highlighted the “lifelong psychological effects” of such a policy on children and the “toxic stress” placed on separated families.

King could not agree more, especially for the very young.

“Young kids don’t have the cognitive reasoning to really make sense of it,” she told Angelus News. “So it can be especially damaging when you have a separated kid who’s 3, 4 or even 5 years old. Because they can’t comprehend stuff like ‘immigration.’

“So what often happens is they turn it around and feel like they’ve done something bad. That’s why their parents aren’t with them. Or their parents don’t care for them. And that can be especially disruptive of that attachment between the child and the parents.”

Supporters of the policy, including some cable-channel TV pundits, have opined that being separated from their parents for six weeks or less would not seriously harm any child. King begged to differ.

“Oh, my goodness!” she exclaimed. “For a kid, that’s an enormous amount of time. Absolutely. And it’s not as if they’re into, like, a really caring environment with their extended family. Or with trained caregivers or social workers to play with them with educational toys. From what I’ve seen on TV, basically, they were in cages. And that just compounded it and makes it worse.”

 

‘Still locked up’

Judy Ho, a clinical and forensic psychologist, readily agreed that in six weeks a lot can happen to a developing child. A forced separation from parents or caregivers can impact their relationship with other adults. It can also raise their sense of helplessness in a world they are trying hard to comprehend, triggering other more severe problems.

“It’s different if you know you’re having a separation with a parent, but you feel safe,” explained the associate professor at Pepperdine University. “And children really need that sense of safety. That’s what they get from bonding with their parents. But if they don’t know when or if they’re ever coming back, especially at certain developmental stages, that can lead to problems such as depression or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

She said younger children are more susceptible to having their basic needs met — such as food, shelter and safety. But later as teenagers, what they need most is the steadfast support of their parents in helping them construct their own identity.

“So, I would say younger children, who are still building an attachment with their parents, can be harmed more in the situation we’re talking about,” she pointed out. 

“They haven’t developed a verbal skill or a coping strategy to help them yet. They don’t have all the tools they will as they get older. Younger children don’t really know what’s going on. They’re not in control. It doesn’t matter whether they’re separated for six weeks or two weeks, because they just feel hopeless to change things.”

Ho said obviously there are many factors that can make such an event more traumatic for a child. One big one is if they come from families that already have a high level of stress going on. And that can influence their overall mental health.

The clinical psychologist doesn’t believe President Trump’s recent executive order halting his much-criticized “zero tolerance” policy of splitting up families — at least for now — really lessens much of the trauma these separated migrant children are suffering.

“They’re still locked up,” she said. “They still feel helpless, which is a huge element.”

 

‘Wired for attachment’

As coordinator of the Assistance Ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Heather Banis knows what trauma can do to a child. She also knows what can help stressed-out young victims, which is the opposite of what is happening along our southern border.

“Anytime you abruptly separate a child from their parents and deny access of both to one another, that can be damaging to the child,” she said, speaking to Angelus News in her office. 

“I mean, it happens sometimes in horrendous circumstances like an accident. And it’s very difficult because we’re wired for attachment. And that primary attachment relationship is usually to parents or whoever is providing them care. To be abruptly separated from them with little or no explanation, no preparation, is very frightening to children.

“So what I would say is when a child is agitated and distressed, they are neurologically aroused. Their system is ramped up. So one of the key things, especially in younger children, to help them calm down is to hold and touch them in ways that are rhythmic and patterned,” she said.

“[But according to media reports] that’s not happening. No human contact is allowed. And from what I’ve seen on TV, the kids are either agitated or they’re shutting down. Both of those are problematic. And the longer that it goes on, the more risk is associated for the child and their recovery.”

“They must be feeling incredibly vulnerable,” she continued. “Incredibly vulnerable when they’re not being touched. I don’t know if anybody is able to speak to them in their language. Nobody is familiar to them. So, it’s as if the whole world has literally turned upside down. And they don’t know what’s happening.”

Banis agreed that children often blame themselves for situations they can’t comprehend. For example, when their parents get a divorce or when they move, or when their family is torn apart by forced separation. 

What’s happening is they think they are bad kids. Maybe they didn’t clean their room or talked back to their mom? Whatever, it was their fault.

So, on top of the anxiety and the fear of what’s happening now and when is it going to end, there is a ton of guilt, with probably no chance to recuperate.

“And depending on the age of the child and how much they understand and how articulate their faith life might be, there’s anger at God: ‘Why is God doing this to me? Why didn’t God keep me safe with my mom?’ ” she explained. 

“So, what we know about trauma is that when it happens one of the best things for a person who’s been traumatized is to be reconnected to the people they know, love and trust — basically, reabsorbed into the space and routine that has characterized their world.”

“They may also need professional intervention,” said Banis. “But the overall sense of continuity and returning to that place where they felt safe with the people who they feel safe with, can be one of the most powerful things of lessening the trauma. And that’s exactly what is being taken away from these kids.”


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