How Separating Children Damages the Brain

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Many parents coming to the US border with their children are seeking asylum and protection under international law. (See Refugee Act of 1980). Asylum is a humanitarian protection and part of the American value system particularly since the Holocaust of the mid-twentieth century. Those who seek asylum in the United States are afraid to return to their countries fleeing war, violence, and persecution in their native countries.

Under federal law, ANYONE from another country can “legally” seek asylum. Immigrants are eligible to apply for asylum for up to one year after entering the US. Many come here, literally, to save the lives of their children and themselves. 
According to the United State Government, "To obtain asylum through the affirmative asylum process you must be physically present in the United States. You may apply for asylum status regardless of how you arrived in the United States or your current immigration status."

Recently immigrants LEGALLY seeking asylum, and following the rules, who have committed no crimes, are being separated from their children, some of which are infants. These damaging and punitive separations are the product of cruel policies set by the current administration’s Department of Justice. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions outlined the Trump administration policies. Contrary to what AG Sessions says, there are no laws on the books directing this policy [separating children from their families] and the only blame for this vindictive, punishing action rests squarely on the choices and policies of those in charge. The Trump administration is not only separating children from their caregivers but also, now, cannot account for almost 1500 of those children.

The ramifications for children being damaged because of the separation from their parents is significant. This article takes a deeper look at the physiological reaction of children when they are traumatized.
 

Defining Trauma

 

 

Psychological trauma refers to a unique individual experience or event or continuing conditions, where a child’s ability to absorb and incorporate an emotional experience is trounced and exhausted. These individuals face (based on their perception) a threat to life and bodily safety.  In other words, the child’s perception is a threat to their life and safety. Remember, these children have already (most probably) been exposed to threats, and traumas by virtue of their beginnings in countries where wars and violence were part of their daily lives.

What are the neurophysiological results for the child?

Fight/Flight/Freeze.

To understand the insult to a child’s brain, one must first understand the physiological response and reaction of the fight, flight and/or freeze. The fight, flight, freeze response is a normal reaction or alarm reaction to perceived danger. We all need this reaction to keep us out of the pathway of a speeding car or to alert us to danger so we can react quickly, often without thinking, to protect ourselves. Once there is a threat (real or perceived) our bodies are hyper-aroused and a series of physiological changes begin. The Central Nervous System begins the process of releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Central and peripheral nervous system activity responsible for processing threat information becomes involved. The reaction is an automatic survival response, directly correlated with the behavior of the child. (Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., The Child Trauma Academy, 2002)

 Hyper-aroused children become hyper-vigilant children. Hyper-vigilance becomes the baseline for children who are chronically hyper-aroused, so even without active triggers, their hyper-vigilant or hyper-arousal starting point involves a constantly heightened state of high arousal. The result is that it takes little to nothing to set them off into freeze/fight/flight.

The chronically hyper-aroused brain shifts from processing in the pre-frontal cortex where executive functioning takes place to the limbic system or the emotional seat of the brain. The brains of these students cannot filter out the

overwhelming bombardment of all kinds of sensory, environmental and extraneous information. The result is the brain's self-preservation response. Young children are virtually helpless as they are not in control of their environments. Children are small with limited physical strength. Instead of fighting or fleeing, they may freeze when there is a perceived threat. As a result of a lack of safety and control from the child's perspective, they may shut down.

 

 

Toxic Stress Affects the Brain

The younger a child’s brain the more damaging the toxic stress. Environmental experiences, interactions, and relationships that expose a child to toxic stress make a child’s brain incredibly vulnerable to chemical changes and even structural changes in that brain. These changes are not only damaging but also can cause long-term or even life-long changes.  

Read more about Toxic Stress by visiting the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

Separating children from their families is wrong. Those who separate infants and children from mothers, inflicting physical, long-term and possibly life-long harm. Toxic stress shortens the lives of these children and endangers their current and future welfare. To intentionally inflict this harm is child abuse.

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