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A Trauma Specialist Explains the Danger of Separating Families

Immigration policies that separate children from their families could have long-lasting mental effects.

tcareob72/Getty Images
tcareob72/Getty Images

I am a mental health therapist who specializes in trauma.  I do a lot of research about the brain, and how it is affected by trauma, and then work with patients young and old in my office to try and repair much of the damage done by abuse and neglect.  As I write this I have no delusions about changing the mind of an Attorney General or a President (who doesn’t read anyway).  

What I hope to show you, dear reader is the science behind what these children will suffer as a result of the Administration’s barbaric policy of separation from their primary caregivers.  I hope to show you how barbaric this treatment is, and that there is no justification rational or religious that warrants this type of damage to a child.  

When we, as humans, connect to each other, oxytocin begins to flow.  It’s what I and my colleagues refer to as the “love drug.”  It helps reduce the anxiety and stress in the body by countering the effects of the fight or flight system.  When you hug your child or your spouse for more than twenty seconds, you can feel the tension begin draining from you, and you relax into that embrace.  That’s oxytocin.  

In fact, when we are in connection with one another our brains are humming along at their peak.  They were designed for that connected state.  When we experience long periods of disconnection, those chemicals become much harder to obtain even during moments of connection.  The brain is reshaped into a constant state of anxiety where cortisol (the drug that hypes up the body and prepares it for fight or flight) is humming at a constant level.  Cortisol is a great drug to have in large amounts if there is a tiger behind you.  Over long periods, though, it is extremely damaging to joints and tissues and is linked to the development of things like heart disease, fibromyalgia, IBS, stroke, etc.  

So to summarize thus far, oxytocin is good, and cortisol is not good (at least for long periods).  When you take a child from their mother (or father, or both) you disrupt their primary source of connection.  You steal from them the ability to feel safe in the world and to self-soothe by getting that oxytocin fix.  Essentially, the child is now in unfamiliar situations creating stress with no soothing bond to be able to calm the brain—and the cortisol is flowing.  This creates what we call toxic stress.

Toxic stress is a condition that creates long-lasting, often permanent, adverse changes in the brain.  In situations of abuse and neglect of children, we see damage to the prefrontal cortex and it is actually smaller than in neurotypical children.  There is often damage to the corpus callosum, which is the bridge that allows communication between the hemispheres of the brain.  The anterior cingulate, which is responsible, in part, for emotional regulation and social recognition and bonding, becomes damaged and disrupted.  

We are talking here about measurable, real brain damage that occurs as a result of the disruption of the child’s world in this way.

So I ask you, is it worth it? Is feeling a little safer (actual safety concerns about border security are overblown to generate fear and anxiety which you can read about here) worth actually causing brain damage to a child?  There is no doubt in the mind of any psychologist or therapist that this is the ultimate result of separating children from their primary caregivers, and the earlier the separation the deeper the damage is.  

I’m a therapist and I intended to write this brief article from that perspective.  But I am also a devout follower of Christ.  As such, I also found it necessary to call out the absolute evil of quoting the Bible to justify this kind of child abuse.  

Politics aside, it is the basest kind of cruelty to use the prime example of compassion in human history to do something so absolutely cruel.  From a purely Christian view, it also flies in the face of everything Christ taught.

I have many friends whose political views are antithetical to mine, and they are evangelical in their Christian views.  Even though we differ greatly politically, I know their heart and I am encouraged to see that they, too, are outraged by this.  It is an abomination in the most Biblical sense.

Attorney General Sessions and the White House Press Secretary are pushing the Republican line that it is Biblical to “obey and enforce the law.”  They know they are speaking about Old Testament Law and in that same code of conduct, their boss and the leader of the Republican Party would be subject to stoning for adultery.  If we claim to follow Christ, then we claim to follow the new law that he brought to the world.  That law was predicated on compassion and he spoke frequently about caring for the poor and for children.  

It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. – Luke 17:2

We are besieged by a Party and an Administration that knows no bounds.  Their goal is wealth through isolation and control.  I write this today, only months before we have the chance to halt this direction, to appeal to my friends who are Christian and of different political views.  Look at the science of what is happening to these children.  Look at the cruelty being done in that name of the law, look to your own understanding and ask…

Is this who we want to be?

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