Yesterday, I picked up the phone three times, hands shaking, to tell Congress that we need to be doing better as Americans and, more importantly, as humans. When the congressional aides answered the phone, my voice did not waver; it was clear & strong. I’m lucky that I live in a place where my senators & congressmen are already working tirelessly against the policies separating children from their families (hell yeah, Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, & Stephen Lynch!). I am heartbroken, I am angry, I am so tired, but I am not giving up.
Over the weekend, while celebrating Father's Day, the thoughts were relentless. When my toddler was walking holding our hands, when he vomited (full-on exorcist style) & needed so many cuddles to fall asleep, when I watched my family bombard him with love, when he woke up at the crack of dawn wanting his daddy to read to him - I saw their faces, heard their cries, felt their fear. Regardless of your stance on immigration, as parents & humans, we should all be able to agree that these sweet loves should not be in detention centers cut off from affection, security, & the ones they love best. And make no mistake, despite the way this is being defended, illegal immigration & the separation of children from their families are two different issues. You can believe we need tighter immigration laws AND believe tearing children away from their parents is a violation of human rights. So, today I break it down for you: toxic stress is why these policies aren't making our world a better place.
What is toxic stress? Toxic stress can result from frequent, prolonged, or strong activation of a stress response without the protection that the presence of a supportive relationship with an adult provides. It is often closely related to trauma. What constitutes “trauma” is individualized, but experts like Bruce Perry define it as any experience that impairs the proper functioning of a person’s stress-response system. Trauma makes our stress-response systems more sensitive, which is not a good thing.
Okay, so what does toxic stress do? Without writing you a novel, toxic stress changes brain function & structure, & can disrupt metabolic & organ systems. Children's brains are very flexible as they grow, which means they’re particularly susceptible to environmental influences, like love & support (more of these, please!) or trauma. The younger the child, the more flexible and susceptible their brain is. Children who experience toxic stress are likely to have heightened, ongoing levels of anxiety as a result of these disruptions. Most importantly, they are less able to discriminate between what is safe & what isn't - their body reacts with a stress response even when they aren't in danger. Consequently, toxic stress during these sensitive developmental periods can cause functional disruptions in memory, executive functioning (like attention & impulse control), & learning. Dr. Charles Nelson and Dr. Louis Kraus break it down further in an interview with the Washington Post.
So how does this all fit together? For these children, the stressor is strong - there is virtually nothing more stressful for a young child than separation from a parent. Think of the last time you were out of your baby's sight & the panic & tears that ensued (maybe for both of you). Andthe stressor is prolonged (lasting weeks or longer). We also have to remember that most of these children came here as a result of trauma in their home country. Translation: these children are very likely experiencing toxic stress.
When trauma occurs, healing happens best in relationships. So, if/when these families are reunited, they would benefit from family therapy to help prevent some of these outcomes - therapy that is maybe even less likely to be available here than it is in the countries they’re fleeing. We are creating thousands of children who are likely to struggle with anxiety & mental health disorders, learning & behavioral problems, chronic disease, & difficulty coping. In fact, we know that detained children are much more likely to have emotional & physical complications, & children separated from their parents have struggled with depression as adults. If we want to make the world a better place, we have to start by giving children - ALL children - the love, support, & opportunities they need to thrive. While we can't control every child's experience, we CAN enact policies that give any children under our country's purview the very best chance.
So here is my plea: call your senators & congressmen (& women!). But, fun fact: social media, mail, & email are not the most effective way to get your message across. Think of those as suggestion boxes. They just tell congressmen what constituents are interested in. Phone calls, on the other hand, are recorded & given to the senator or congressmen directly by their aides regularly. I know it’s 2018, and using the phone might give you heart palpitations & sweaty palms (like me, unless I’m ordering pizza), so the ACLU has a wonderful little script that gets straight to the point here. The congressional staffers are super nice & will respond to your call with information about how they are currently addressing this issue. Make the call, read the script, start changing the world. There are so many beautiful children counting on you.