Healing children’s (and the nation’s) wounds

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Children and families who have been separated at our southern border have faced significant trauma. The more than 2,300 detained children need to be reunited with their parents immediately. We must also plan for how we will support families as they process and heal from the terrible experiences of being separated from one another.

As professionals with many years of shared experience working with children and families, supporting their health and well-being is our core mission. The experiences that we have seen depicted in vivid images and horrible headlines run counter to everything we know from decades of developmental research about what children need to thrive. From our research and experience supporting children, we know that being forcibly separated from parents is, in fact, among the most negative experiences a child can have.

In order to thrive and reach their full potential, children need caring relationships and stable, consistent and safe homes. We know that children are being exposed to extreme stress when they are separated from their parents and placed with strangers, who, however well-meaning, cannot provide them the security care, and reassurance they require.

This level of stress can be toxic to the developing brain, with effects that may last well into adulthood and impact not only learning, but also life-long health. Young children exposed to stress that results in this toxic biological response are at greater risk for problems in growth, learning and development, for depression and anxiety, and for later problems in cardiovascular health and chronic mental health conditions. They risk not reaching their fullest potential as productive, contributing members of their communities, which consequently suffer as a whole.

Caring, protective relationships can buffer children against the terrible impact of toxic stress. Yet the infants and young children who have been separated from their parents and families do not have these protective relationships. They are placed in understaffed, under-resourced institutional care of the kind that was abandoned decades ago in our country, after we learned about the harm that children experience when they develop without sustained, caring relationships.

Forcibly separating children from their parents is like knowingly exposing them to a virulent infection while withholding the life-saving medical treatments. We stand by, witnessing the harm as we ignore all that we know about what children need.

Furthermore, we are troubled by the impact this will have on our society as a whole. What has happened at the border is an assault not only on children and their parents, but also on our core values as a nation and a society. The collective horror we have witnessed is one we will grapple with for many years as we try to come to terms with how we have treated these vulnerable children and families at this moment in our history.

How we invest in and care for children wherever they live reflects on our values, our moral commitments and our legacy to future generations. The health and well-being of our communities depends on how we care for children. If we want strong communities we need to support all children to become engaged and productive citizens.

Because negative effects accumulate as children spend more time in detention facilities, they must be immediately removed from these institutions and reunited with their families. In addition, the children’s families are also in need of our care and support. Many have been forced to accept the most difficult circumstance imaginable – giving up their children to strangers not knowing whether they will be safe or they will ever be reunited again.

And for the adults who are enforcing and/or witnessing these separations and responding to the children in the detention centers, the burden is great. These individuals, too, must receive supportive services. As we move forward, we must call upon our expertise in the physical and mental health of children and families, and tend to their harm through the care and support of professionals who are experts in child development.

This is not a short-term problem with a quick solution. As a country, we are at our best when work to enhance the health and support the wellbeing of all children and families. We are at our worst when we neglect our moral commitments or disregard what we know about what children and families need to thrive. Today, we are revisiting what has been the worst in our treatment of children, but we are also seeing an outcry that represents what is best in us.

Science can ground us in truth and reason and help us see what we need to do as professionals and human beings. We know what children need. We know what we need to do.

Linda C. Mayes, M.D. and  Clifford Bogue, M.D., are Professors and Chairs at the Yale Child Study Center and Department of Pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine and are Clinical Chiefs at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital.


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