By Amanda Lyons, Safe Harbor Child and Family Program Manager
A national conversation is happening right now about families being separated from one another. It is incredibly emotional and fraught but also incredibly important. This conversation is equally important for the families at our borders and the families already in our communities. Every day at Safe Harbor, I work with kids and parents who are impacted by trauma. Often, in spite of a lifetime of every kind of abuse possible, the most significant trauma they’ve experienced is being separated from one another. No matter the circumstances surrounding the removal, it is indescribably impactful for everyone involved.
There is good reason for this incredible impact. Our bodies’ instinctual response to a traumatic event is to activate our internal stress response system. This is typically an important and adaptive survival mechanism that allows us to respond to potential threats in our environment. When the trauma experienced is a chronic state, such as parental separation or domestic abuse, rather than a one-time event the body is forced to continually respond as if it is under threat. This is why these experiences have a particularly insidious effect on children. When the stress response system is constantly active the child’s body and brain learn to view the world as filled with danger. Their ability to feel safe in any environment is diminished.
The toll this takes on a child’s emotional and physical health truly cannot be overstated. When a child does not feel safe they are unable to undertake the normal developmental processes needed to grow and thrive. Instead, they are only able to focus on survival. Science is now showing us that the long term ways these children are being impacted is, quite literally, down to their DNA. Children who experience this type of trauma are at increased risk for heart disease, cancer, stroke, substance dependence, diabetes and other serious health concerns. In the short term, there is also increased risk for behavioral issues, developmental regression, weakened immune system, lowered impulse control, and problems with self-regulation.
A close relationship with a significant caregiver is the one thing we know works to combat all of the terrible ways trauma impacts children and their ability to grow into successful, productive, caring adults who might contribute to their community in real ways. The caregiver can act as a buffer against traumatic events (such as gang violence, domestic abuse, and traveling in deplorable conditions to a foreign place in hopes of a better life) because the child’s body and brain will also react to the feelings of comfort and safety the caregiver provides.
Separating a child from their caregiver not only creates a new traumatic event (the separation itself) but also diminishes their ability to recover from past and future traumas.
Through my work at Safe Harbor, I have witnessed the devastation and pain caused by caregiver-child separations and it is always heart-wrenching. I have also been fortunate to witness the healing that can occur within the context of that all-important relationship and it is always inspiring. To me, that protective and healing relationship represents the best that we human beings can offer one another. Surely, we can agree that children – all children – deserve our best.