As a researcher who studies the effects of stress on development, I am severely concerned about the ongoing separation of migrant children from their families after crossing the U.S.- Mexico border.
Decades of research has demonstrated that early experiences not only affect behavior, but also our brain architecture and our immune system.
When we traumatize young children, the resulting stress hormones and brain chemicals impact brain development.
If trauma persists for days and weeks, the result can be an individual who is chronically vigilant to threat, reacts defensively at the drop of a hat, is poor in self-control, and at risk of depression as well as poor physical health.
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Forcibly separating young children from their parents and placing them where they do not have one-on-one care by a known loving adult, do not know when they will see their parent again — and do not know anyone — is one of the most traumatic experiences we could devise.
Because imposing such trauma on children will likely affect some for the rest of their lives and all into the near future, our first obligation should be to return these children to their parents as quickly as possible.
And, in the meantime, help the child and parent be in regular, frequent contact — even by phone — until they can be reunited. [According to the U.S. government, more than 3,000 children have been separated from their parents at the border since April. The parents are detained for prosecution for crossing the border illegally.]
Beyond reuniting these families, though, we need to realize that we are returning traumatized children to traumatized parents.
We need to provide therapeutic support to them as they all try to recover from this terrifying experience.
Megan R. Gunnar,
professor and director,
Institute of Child Development,
and associate director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Development,
University of Minnesota