What is Toxic Stress? Family Separation Under Trump Has Lasting Effect

"Trauma is a far more harmful and overwhelming form of stress."

by Josie Rhodes Cook

Two months ago, President Donald Trump’s administration began its new “zero-tolerance” policy, requiring criminal prosecution of any adults who arrive illegally at the border between the United States and Mexico. As a result of this policy, children are being separated from their parents when they reach the border, even if they’re there to seek asylum in the US. Most alarmingly, parents and children are sent to different detention centers as a result of this “zero-tolerance” policy, a move that child psychologists tell Inverse could inflict irreparable damage.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association all oppose these family separations and have called on the Department of Homeland Security to stop them immediately. Child psychology experts say the trauma being inflicted on these children may affect them for the rest of their lives.

Victoria E. Kress, Ph.D. a professor of counseling at Youngstown State University and board-certified counselor who specializes in helping children, described the long-term damage that results from these separations in an email to Inverse.

Toxic stress responses occur when children experience significant adversity without the adequate adult support required to manage such stress. Prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt brain development and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment.

Kress said that long-term separation from their parents can definitely have long-term consequences on children.

The research is clear that the longer the parents and children are separated, the more likely the child is to experience prolonged stress reactions such as anxiety and depression. Separation from parents, especially under stressful circumstances, can lead to attachment disruptions and a host of mental health problems. For children, traumatic events can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health disorders; these experiences can impact a child and haunt them throughout their lives and even lead to transgenerational trauma or trauma that is transferred from one generation of trauma survivors to future generations of children.

Lauren Anthony, LLMSW Child Welfare, reiterated the importance of addressing attachment issues in an email to Inverse.

Children, especially young children, are still developing their sense of attachment and if you disrupt that by taking them away from their parents it can severely damage their ability to develop healthy relationships (of all types) in the future.
[That’s] not even bringing in the additional issue of the effects the trauma will have on the child. Trauma is a far more harmful and overwhelming form of stress, sometimes referred to as hyperstress. It overwhelms the system and affects the child’s ability to respond to the environment…Trauma can affect the child’s cognition, behavior, attachment, biology, and self-concept.

In its statement against separating children and parents at border, the AAP wrote that the practice can be “harmful to children’s health,” and added:

Highly stressful experiences, including family separation, can cause irreparable harm to lifelong development by disrupting a child’s brain architecture. Toxic stress, which is caused by prolonged exposure to heightened stress, has detrimental short- and long-term health effects.

In its statement, the ACP linked to a report by The New England Journal of Medicine about the consequences that may manifest as a result of separating families at the border. It read, in part:

…if children are unnecessarily and traumatically removed from their parents, their physical and mental health and well-being will suffer. The effects of traumatic experiences — especially in children who have already faced serious adversity — are unlikely to be short lived: cumulative adversity can last a lifetime, even increasing the risk of early death.

That’s not hyperbole. We are actually talking about a life and death situation here — adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are, in fact, associated with a higher risk of premature death, according to The American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

This forced family separation matter doesn’t have to be an issue of your politics. It’s not about Republicans and Democrats, or whether you lean right or left or stay firmly center. Childhood trauma like this is a mental health issue that we should all be concerned with. And this is one kind of trauma that child psychologists and other experts say could significantly impact these kids for the rest of their lives.

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