I recently saw Anaeli (not her real name), an 8-year-old Mexican American girl, in clinic for worsening constipation. Her mother brought her in because of a year’s worth of increasingly irregular bowel movements. Looking through her chart, it was easy to find the starting point of Anaeli’s constipation – it aligned with her father’s deportation. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had arrested him while he was dropping Anaeli off at school.
Family separation at the border has reignited awareness of the effects of adverse childhood events. As a young pediatrician training in San Diego, I see both the impact of immigration policies on children and the resulting need for trauma-informed care. We need coordinated efforts in homes, schools, and hospitals to effectively treat affected kids.
For the past year, Anaeli’s caregivers have struggled to do so. She has been acting out, frequently crying and throwing fits about going to school. Anaeli has missed about 30 days of school because of behavioral issues.
What does 30 fewer days of first grade look like? Anaeli’s language skills are at a standstill. She cannot follow complex directions like her peers. Because of her academic shortcomings, Anaeli earned an individualized education plan and a teacher’s aide to help her focus. This aide has adopted a “tough love” attitude. Anaeli’s mom reports that she is often disciplined by long time-outs in the classroom bathroom and worries that this discipline is causing Anaeli to withhold stool to a point of loosing control and soiling herself. Since working with the aide, Anaeli has been having daily “accidents,” stooling in her pants, despite being toilet trained for years.
After the appointment, I called the school three times and was finally able to get in touch with Anaeli’s aide. She expressed frustration over Anaeli’s “lack of trying” and “meltdown” reaction to discipline. She said Anaeli’s mom was not enforcing limits at home. She told me she had successfully used time-outs in the bathroom with her own children. When I reviewed the impact of childhood trauma and more appropriate approaches to discipline, the aide grew defensive and challenged me by asking if I have kids of my own.
While I disagreed with the aide’s methods, I understood her frustration. Anaeli is not easy to help. But she is just one of a generation of children affected by the deportation of a family member. Like them, Anaeli’s health is deeply affected by stress in a way that she many not be able to verbalize.
Trauma-informed care should be an essential lens for caregivers of children who have been separated from their family. Resolving Anaeli’s constipation will require a concerted effort by her mom, health providers, teachers, and aides to encourage good behavior, use measured disciplinary tactics, and consume a high-fiber diet. In doing so, we can provide children like her with the appropriate environment to build resilience.
Dr. Parekh is a pediatrician in San Diego. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.