“Perceptual “tricks” cause us to construe others as literally a part of us. So children at baseline assume their parents are extensions of them, and available to them, at all times.”
— JAMES COAN, Ph.D., UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
The present immigration practices on the southern border of the U.S. have caused emotional reactions across the board. Over the last few months on social media, child advocates have expressed their reactions to the new immigration policies.
Recently, we attended the conference “Separating Children at the Border: Short and Long-term Consequences” run by the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office. The conference guest speaker was esteemed Dr. James Coan and also featured a multidisciplinary panel of experts. The focus of the conference was how to mitigate trauma, and it was attended by mental health professionals, members of the community, police officers and law makers.
For many, the current immigration policies causing young children to be separated from their parents has provoked complex emotions. In particular, clinicians at BPAR have been asked about the best way to talk with young adoptees about their concerns in a way that will instill a sense of safety and security. An international adoptee, especially, may experience an amplified emotional response when they watch news stories about Central American children being separated indefinitely from their parents. To answer this question, we find it helpful to examine the current immigration policies and to review research on attachment to gain an understanding of the short and long-term consequences of childhood separation from a primary caregiver.
Throughout our country’s history, spanning multiple administrations, law and policy makers have introduced a variety of proposed legislation to address the needs of children of asylum seekers. Current policies state that anyone found illegally crossing the southern border to seek asylum would be charged with a crime, and their children were to be removed from their custody.The hope was that the separation of the children from parents by the U.S. government would deter asylum seekers.
What are the short- and long-term consequences of childhood separation from a caregiver?
Healthy attachments to caregivers are directly linked to healthy childhood development. Dr. James Coan summarizes research indicating that children need “serve and return” behaviors, where children receive constant feedback and input from their caregivers, in order to develop scaffolding needed for critical child development. When children are separated from their parent or caregiver, they may begin to assume that they won’t be taken care of and their parents are unreliable. This may present as detachment when children are reunited with their parents. Attachment researcher John Bowlby found that children separated from their parents for as short as a week during bombings in London had worse outcomes than those children who stayed with their parents, even during active bombings.
According to Coan, when children experience adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s), they may experience accelerated brain development. When the brain “accelerates” or matures too quickly, children may experience inflexible emotions, heightened sensitivity, and a tendency to discount possible positive outcomes in the future. The panel of experts at the conference we attended included Linda Forsythe, MD, a child psychiatrist who specializes in adoption, and Sarah Surrain, a Ph.D. Candidate in Education specializing in linguistics. They likened the current separation of children from their families to international adoption. Surrain cited Chuck Nelson’s famous studies of children’s orphanages in Romania. These studies found that the longer a child stayed in institutional care, the worse the child development outcomes were compared to children who stayed in foster care. Drs. Forsythe and Surrain drew parallels between attachment issues that arise in adoption with similar attachment and intimacy issues that might surface for the children separated from their parents at the border. While attachment issues do not befall all adopted children, many adoptees need support to develop a healthy attachment style. Coan and the multidisciplinary panel at the conference stressed that “Resilience is the rule, not the exception.” Many children are extremely resilient and there are ways we can help, as mental health professionals, and as a community, to mitigate trauma.
So what can I say to my internationally adopted child about immigration policies?
For parents of children, adoptees, international adoptees, and children born in Central America, the current situation can leave one feeling hopeless. However, there are ways to engage your children in discussion while simultaneously bringing them comfort.
- Limit your child’s exposure to the news. While older children and adolescents may be able to process these bits of media, the stories can prove traumatic in their own right, especially to younger children.
- Build a safe space. If your child is feeling unsafe or asks if they will be “sent back home,” take some time and establish a safe place for your child. You can draw a picture of your home with your child, and fill it with all the comforts and provisions they need. You can walk through your home and add images to your picture, and your child can bring it to school or into the community if they need a reminder of their safe place. Building a fort with your child is another fun way to help them construct their own safe place within your home, into which they can retreat when in need of security and comfort.
- Discuss your family’s morals with your child and remind them that they are worthy of love, as are all children. You can offer to make cards or write letters to children who are presently held in government run facilities. Even if these notes cannot be sent, the exercise may prove therapeutic for your child.
- Contact your state representative. Your best way to advocate for your child is to be their voice and speak out for the rights of other children like them who are in need. Your child will witness your action and be reassured that you are not only their protector, but are indeed a protector of children everywhere.
What else can any of us do?
“Fred Rogers often told this story about when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”—PBS
We value the importance of the parent or caregiver relationship in childhood development. The good news is that there is a lot of research (Nelson, and Dozier et. al.) that foster care can help build healthy attachments in some cases where children cannot be immediately reunited with their parents.
If we can’t reunite parents and children right away, we can:
- Host a child or host a parent;
- Contribute to Lawyers for Children of America (at the conference, they shared that you can donate, offer rides, short-term housing, kits for children, etc);
- Employ child sensitive care to build trust (to learn more, check out Jerry Paterson at the Oregon Learning Center). Child sensitive care is often what we stress in our work with adoptive parents to strengthen the parent-child dyad;
- Be a part of ongoing community education events such as the conference we attended (i.e. foster care has positive outcomes with the appropriate amount of training and the experiences of attachment, Dozier et al).
This conference was a great stepping stone towards educating the public on what we can do to help as a community. We are the helpers.
Co-written by KC Craig, LICSW and Caitlin Woodstock, Mental Health Masters Candidate
Boston Post Adoption Resources