Like many Americans, the desperate cries of the young children separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border continue to reverberate in our minds. As researchers, we are deeply concerned about the well-being of these children, and we know, based on science, what we can do to help.
The conditions confronting the thousands of young children who are now at the U.S.-Mexico border risk not only their immediate health and happiness but their long-term well-being as well. Many young children have already been separated from their parents and detained for weeks. We know that children in these types of situations begin to show the same effects of trauma as those raised in orphanages. They have difficulty establishing secure relationships and are at elevated risk to act out or become depressed, and are more likely to develop chronic diseases later in life.
For decades, researchers — including many of us — have been studying how stress can change children’s brains. The results are clear. Healthy brain development depends on the secure relationship between young children and their primary caregivers. Removing young children from parents has immediate, harmful effects. When this separation goes on for weeks, these stress responses become toxic, altering the architecture of the developing brain and affecting the immune system. Over time, the neural systems that support fear and defensive reactions become stronger, making these responses a child’s default way of reacting to new situations. Meanwhile, these stressful experiences weaken the brain systems that help children exercise self-control, problem-solving and other executive functions. Chronic stress also induces chronic immune activation. When immune activation continues unchecked, instead of protecting the body, it can lead to disease.
The way that children are separated from their caregivers and families makes a difference, too. Stress is more toxic if children are separated suddenly with little or no warning, placed with strangers, hear an unfamiliar language and thus are unable to communicate, as well as have frequently changing caretakers. These and other factors magnify the negative effects that children experience when forcibly removed from their families.
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The immigration crisis at the southern border is the most prominent example of how we must use strong science to affect policies that limit the damage to children and families, but the use of science can also be applied to other important societal issues – from dealing with foster care, to the incarceration of parents, or childhood abuse and neglect.
Authorities and caregivers must do whatever is in their power to lessen the substantial trauma already inflicted on these young lives. Temporary caregivers should be consistent and caring for children in unfamiliar surroundings.
If and when the separations of parents and children end, the negative effects won’t end. This kind of stress can continue to affect children and families. As policymakers, practitioners and citizens across the country look to grapple with the issue of family separation, it is critical that they use the best science available. Practices informed by the science of brain development can help ensure that all children have the ability to reach their full potential. Solving this situation should be a wake-up call for us all: When we let children suffer at the hands of policy, we’re looking at long-term human and societal costs.
Jackie Bezos is writing on behalf of the Early Childhood Scientific Advisory Group, Bezos Family Foundation, which includes more than a dozen child development researchers in cross-disciplinary fields.
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