It’s been a devastating summer for child migrants. Over 2,000 kids, some only toddlers, have been separated from their families at the border. With no easy way for these kids to be reunited with their families, experts worry that the trauma the kids are experiencing, be it in the court system or in foster care, is inflicting irreversible damage on their developing brains.
“We’re talking about immigrants who are coming out of situations [that are] already traumatic,” says Michèle Neuhaus, Director of the 0-5 Early Childhood Mental Health Initiative for the Child Center of New York. Neuhaus compares such a child to a “seed” that has been watered and nurtured before suddenly being abandoned. “Getting here was traumatic, but they had [someone] protecting them. But now that person is gone.”
Extreme childhood trauma, now called toxic stress, is not a new concept. It was first introduced in the 1980s by Dr. Vincent Felitti, who, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recruited over 17,000 patients to study obesity. The project, coined the ACEs Study, was a landmark in epidemiologic research, and showed that childhood trauma was linked to almost every major health problem in the U.S.
But its impact on children is only now under scrutiny since the border crisis intensified last month, when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy toward migration, using the threat of parent-child separation to deter illegal border crossings.
Toxic stress at a young age can do irreparable damage to a child’s development. Research has shown that kids who experience trauma have a higher propensity for disease or depression. Other studies have found a correlation between stress and cancers, including skin and breast cancers and rheumatoid arthritis. Over 1,200 pediatricians across the nation are implementing toxic stress therapy into their practices, according to Jane Stevens, founder of ACEs Connection, an online social and news network dedicated to raising awareness about adverse childhood experiences.
Neuhaus, whose work includes researching bonds between parents and young children, says that such bonds are essential in order for a child to fully develop.

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“Any separation from a mother — it’s the most traumatic thing a child can go through,” says child mental health expert Michèle Neuhaus.

“A lot of the trauma [these children are facing] is, what happens next? Any separation from a mother — it’s the most traumatic thing a child can go through. It’s a biological and an emotional bond,” she says.
Though the stress levels these children experience have been well-documented, there is hope that children who experience this trauma can recover from it, so long as the proper therapy is in place.
Stevens says that in order to properly address toxic stress, there needs to be systems in place that actually address the trauma — foremost being a safe environment with parents or a loving caregiver.
“The child needs to be in a safe home,” Stevens tells NationSwell. “When kids get separated from the parents, you understand that that’s extremely traumatic for child and parent.”
If the best way to address toxic stress in children is to put them in a safe environment with people who love them, what do you do when the kids are being subjected to forced separation and trauma, such as those at the center of the border crisis?
Giving children a chance to talk about what they’ve experienced and how they feel about it is key, Neuhaus says. “It helps [us] see how trauma affects [a kid’s] brain and how it affects the behaviors they see.” This storytelling, or building a “trauma narrative,” is an effective tool, she says, in allowing children to take ownership of their trauma and reframe it in an empowering way.
Etiony Aldarondo, an associate dean at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami, created the Immigrant Children Affirmative Network, a booklet that immigrant children can create to tell their stories, along with a board game that helps those children navigate what will happen to them as undocumented migrants in the U.S.
When the source of toxic stress doesn’t directly involve a child’s parents, their role at the outset is still critical.
“Parents are making a lot of honest mistakes,” says Joseph Stachs, a social worker in New York who treats children using a type of therapy called “play” therapy. Speaking generally about the relationships children have with their parents, he says that most kids “have conflicted relationships with their parents.”
Which makes it imperative that parents or caregivers be involved and nurturing in helping treat traumatized children.
For migrant kids, though, that’s not an option, as many of the kids going through immigration courts are facing judges alone, without their parents or even a lawyer by their side. The only hope is that these children are placed with families that recognize the need for supporting kids that are enduring the trauma of family separation.
“Just like a scar will always be there after that accident, it doesn’t define your life,” Neuhaus says. “You can heal from trauma, but it doesn’t go away.”