- Posted by: RoiAnn Phillips
There are still children who have not been reunited with their families as a result of separating families at the U.S. border. And the first hurricane of the season has struck in North Carolina, leaving thousands of children and families in dire situations. Both situations are traumatic. Experiencing trauma as a child is experiencing trauma regardless of the cause. But the experience of trauma these two groups of children will have are as different as night and day.
It really is simple: A young child’s experience of trauma is all about the adults around them and their reaction to the circumstance and the child.
During an emergency like a hurricane, most often you see children with their parents or a trusted caregiver. Most often, the adults and the children are together in a shelter where they are getting medical needs taken care of, clean water, a place to sleep, and there are activities structured for children to help them overcome the traumatic experience of catastrophic natural disaster. These children are with adults who are – no doubt – stressed out and at their wits’ end, but they are getting support and assistance focused on addressing the emergency, and they are receiving information about how they can support their children through the traumatic experience. Parents are there to hug, hold and comfort these children, which is exactly what young children need when they have experienced a traumatic situation – a stable, responsive, supportive adult to say, “Everything is going to be okay. I got you!”
Contrast that with children being forcibly separated, taken away from their parent, their primary caregiver, the person they trust the most to keep them safe. For a moment, imagine something that completely terrifies you as an adult. Now, think about having that level of fear and being 2, 3, 6 or 9 years old. As a parent, just the thought of my child being taken from me, not knowing where they’d gone or when I would see them again, I can’t begin to imagine the stress I would be feeling, let alone what a young child would be feeling in this situation. Were there adults available to hold these children that were separated, pulled apart from their families? Were there adults providing them comfort and loving, compassionate support through their traumatic experience? From the accounts I have heard, this was not the case. Children often experience separation anxiety in normal circumstances. Imagine how these children were feeling.
This kind of separation is traumatic and causes toxic stress that is visible on the outside while on the inside, a massive biological response has been triggered and remains triggered until that child is back with their trusted, stable, responsive, supportive adult. The Center for the Developing Child said it best: “Stated simply, each day we fail to return these children to their parents, we compound the harm and increase its lifelong consequences.”
How many days were children separated? As of September 1, 2018 a New York Times article talked about Pablo Domingo, who had been separated from his 8 year old son since May. That is 3 months, 90 days of experiencing trauma and having a biological trauma response occurring in his young body. As of September 1, 2018 there were still 500 children, of which 22 are under the age of 5 years old, still not reunited with their families.
We all need to understand the affect of trauma on young children. We must ask ourselves what if that was my child, grandchild or family member? If we are living into this vision of Every Baby Our Baby, we have to minimize and mitigate traumatic experiences and toxic stress for all young children. This is the only way we can hope to have today’s young children be tomorrow’s healthy, well adjusted and stable adult members of our communities.