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Written by: Hannah LeClerc, Medical Psychology Center Inter, Salem State University
The goal of any healthy and well functioning family is to be together, to grow together, and to experience life with one another. Immigration policies that have led to the separation of children and their parents at the US and Mexican border are creating lifelong detrimental impacts on these young children. This separation policy openly violates two UN Conventions; the Convention against Torture and the Convention on Rights of the Child. An executive order has since been signed by Trump that prohibits the separation of families during detainment, but this order does not undo the damage that has already been inflicted upon both the children and parents involved. Psychological, biological and emotional changes have been ignited in these children that can prove to be lifelong and irreversible.
High levels of stress, induced by any traumatic or crisis situation, can ignite changes in the body that would not have previously been activated. It has been know that sparking the stress dysregulation system at a young age can rewire a child’s brain in terms of dealing and coping with any form of stress, no matter the source. Activating change in the stress dysregulation mechanism can cause children (or anyone) to be hypervigilant, can pump extra cortisol (the stress hormone) into the brain and body, and can even lead to adrenal burn out due to constantly being in “fight or flight” mode. Our body’s mechanism for facing danger is still very primal, and is directly associated with anxiety and panic disorders. This “toxic stress” can also inhibit children from developing social skills, language skills, and gross motor skills.
Extensive stress on the body is not only related to psychological disorders, but biological health disorders. These include diabetes, heart disease, and even put someone at risk for substance and alcohol abuse. The separation of these families is causing unnecessary stress and trauma that is not only inhumane but totally preventable and avoidable. To put these children at an emotional and psychological disadvantage early in life is morally unacceptable. This act against humanity goes against everything psychologists and parents know about fostering a healthy environment for children to develop and prosper.
If left untreated, these children are at higher risk for developing major depressive disorder, PTSD, substance abuse disorders and possible suicidal ideation or behaviors. This not only goes for children being separated from parents at the border, but for children wrongly separated from their parents and placed into foster care. Even children who should be removed from a toxic home situation are having their entire world dismantled, and can experience toxic stress. A healthy, productive and nurturing family unit is the best way to set a child up for success in life. The only way to prevent this from happening, and to stunt further damage, is to reunite these children with their parents.
Keating, D. P., Ph.D. (2018, June 24). The Torture of Forced Family Separation: The Lifelong Impact. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stressful-lives/201806/the-torture-forced-family-separation-the-lifelong-impact
Roberts, J., & Lloyd, R. (2018, June 22). This Week in Science. Retrieved from https://undark.org/2018/06/22/children-separated-border-trauma/