Family separations could lead to irreversible health outcomes


The recent crises of the separation of stressed children from their equally stressed parents at this country’s southern border raises the specter of emotional and cognitive reactions within these children – the negative ramifications of which will manifest themselves for years to come.

Stress is ubiquitous. Children experience stress in the normal everyday frustrations that come their way: going to day care for a few hours and leaving mommy, the tripping and falling as they learn to walk, a toy breaking. These stresses help a child develop the capacity for emotional regulation and are termed “tolerable stress.” There is, however, a big difference between tolerable stress and toxic stress.

Dr. Aradhana Bela Sood, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, and senior professor of child mental health policy at the Virginia Treatment Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

Dr. Aradhana Bela Sood

When the stress reaction in response to perceived or actual danger is beyond tolerable levels by virtue of its quality, intensity, and longevity, it saps the body’s ability to rally or handle the trauma that is being faced because of depleted neurotransmitters that normally assist the body to fight or flee from danger. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story: As the stressor persists, it has the capacity to produce long-term alterations in the resilience of the brain and body of the young child. This change often is irreversible.

Scientists and the lay public have begun to actively discuss the impact of adverse childhood experiences and their causal link to irreversible negative adult health outcomes. We now know without a doubt the impact of toxic versus tolerable stress on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis of the young child. We are aware that the brain of a young child is particularly vulnerable to stress during critical and sensitive periods of development and that downstream effects of early trauma show up as disorganized behavior and cognitive underperformance.

Development plays a central role in children’s behavioral response to separation from parents. Infants develop a sense of stranger anxiety and the primacy of one central figure between ages 8 and 10 months. The baby chooses the parent over strangers for comfort and care. Roughly between ages 3 and 4, a child develops an internal representation of the parent as the primary figure in their lives so that they can tolerate short periods of being away from the primary caregiver for, let’s say, half a day. They depend on the parent for all their physical and emotional needs, which includes the need for a stable, nurturing, and predictable presence.

Familiarity of the environment, family rituals, consistency of daily routines provided by the parent help neural pathways responsible for the biologic unfolding of developmental milestones. Only recently, the science of early brain development and the role of early childhood trauma on brain biology has caught up with the longitudinal observational studies of bereaved children who lost their parents under circumstances of acute stress (the blitzkrieg, the Yom Kippur War, the Hungarian orphans) followed by the chronic stress phase of no primary caregiver for months to years. These observational studies coupled by the emerging neuroscience of early brain development and trauma are powerful informants of what is tolerable stress for children and what is not.

As a psychiatrist and expert in early child development, I am concerned about these long-term effects on migrant children. Research shows that young children who are nonverbal react to the stress of separation by death or absence of parents with anxiety; frantically seeking the parent/comforting familiar caregiver. Gradually as that possibility fades, with their limited ability to verbalize needs, episodic weeping can give way to disorganized behavior, despondence, and finally apathy and regression of milestones and cognitive abilities already achieved. The separation is merely the proxy face of other disasters that are probably co-occurring for the child/family and multiplies the dose of the stress: loss of siblings, loss of familiar physical elements of the landscape, loss of adequate physical sustenance, loss of routine, loss of consistency, increased vulnerability for physical illness, and the list goes on.

By age 2 and above, children are more vocal in their desire for reunification and will weep inconsolably upon separation. At this time their bodies and the psychological lens through which they view the world is changing irrevocably. Stress hormones, noxious at high levels such as cortisol/adrenocorticotropic hormone and glutamate rise to levels that no longer respond to the traditional negative feedback loop of the body and reach levels that lead to cell death in areas of the brain responsible for modulating emotions that can permanently change brain architecture.

Psychologically, the child seeks out the parent by any means (crying, flailing, tantruming). When no positive outcome occurs, this is replaced by an unwillingness to engage with the world, or the child engages but by behavior that is aggressive, disorganized, and regressed. In their own way, young children’s mistrust of the world leads to a variety of behaviors that impede normal development: rejection of others, disengagement from social connections by quietly sitting in a corner, being unwilling to eat or sleeping fitfully.

As separation from the primary caregiver continues, there is a deepening sense of hopelessness. Generally, no amount of physical props (toys, playgrounds) without the human familiar faces can rectify the feeling of abandonment and hopelessness that children in these conditions face. Assuming they are no strangers to trauma experienced through the lives of their asylum-seeking parents, this separation refreshes all the wounds of days gone by. At least in those moments of initial trauma, they had the parent as a buffer. But with this new separation, they are left to emotionally fend for themselves with no tools to manage their emotions.

We have to deal with the aftereffects of so many natural disasters that cannot be avoided: earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis that displace children and families with horrific outcomes. Did we really need a man-made disaster that will irrevocably change the brains and behaviors of a generation of children who just happen to be on our southern borders because of an accident of birth? If parents abandoned their children this way it would be called child abuse. Deliberate policy decisions that have such dire effects on children also take on the label of child abuse.

Although images of my years as a young parent of three boys are turning a sepia color in faded memory, in my new role as a grandmother observing my son and his wife so in love with their 2-year-old reinforces how much mutual dependency of a child and parent on each other strengthens the very fabric of life. Children are our future and are the building blocks of a just and humane society.

As of this writing, the administration has vowed to end these separations. But how will children who have been separated be reunited with their families?

The education of decision makers about the far-reaching emotional and physical consequences on normative childhood development must be a top priority for all scientists and professionals interested in kids and families: I think that means all of us.

Dr. Sood is professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, and senior professor of child mental health policy at the Virginia Treatment Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond. She also is affiliated with the department of psychiatry at VCU and Children’s Hospital of Richmond.

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