On June 20, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to end the separation of immigrant children from their families, moving forward. But this order does nothing to repair the damage the administration inflicted on thousands of children and their parents, nor does it require the reunification of currently separated families.
Losing a parent is one of the most profound stressors a child can experience; it threatens the child’s safety and causes a heightened state of “fight or flight.” This type of stressor rapidly increases the child’s heart rate and blood pressure. Stress hormones like epinephrine and cortisol flood the system. Fear and panic take over. Decades of science suggest that these separations are traumatic and likely to cause lifelong mental and physical health problems.
Children depend on their caregivers for food, warmth, safety, comfort, and survival. They require a consistent caregiver to fulfill biological necessities. When children are responded to, their brains develop in a way that supports trust, the ability to form and maintain healthy relationships, and the capacity to cope with stress. When caregivers are removed, children are left defenseless, their brains become more sensitive to threat and their stress responses work in overdrive.
Young children do not know how to manage intense feelings on their own. They turn to their caregivers for help in calming down. And many times, because their coping responses are immature, they need physical comfort to stop powerful emotions. They need hugs, gentle touches, or even just the smell of their parent to be able to control their distress. Children without caring adults have none of this, not even from the shelter workers, who are instructed not to touch the children. Alone, they are developmentally unable to cope.
Compounding the separation stress is placement into the chaotic and terrifying shelter. Reports indicate that children are warehoused in cages, some without beds, packed in with other crying children and no caring adult. In other words, children are facing multiple extreme stressors, and their one source of stability and comfort was taken away. This is why the border separations constitutes a trauma.
Trauma is toxic to children, especially in the absence of a nurturing caregiver. Extreme adverse experiences during childhood can even change the set point of the stress response, chronically elevating stress hormones or increasing the intensity of hormone reactions to stress. In the long-term, chronic or frequent stress reactivity places people at risk for ailments such as heart attacks, obesity, diabetes, depression, drug use, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even cognitive impairments.
While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is most often associated with combat violence, children who experience traumatic events are particularly vulnerable to developing PTSD. Hostile immigration policies inflict a unique additional stressor on low income immigrant families who have already experienced high levels of stress in their country of origin. In fact, immigrant children, many who are already fleeing violence in their home countries, are already at an increased risk for developing PTSD.
The current executive order is insufficient. Funding for family shelters must be immediately reinstated, and families must be reunited; equally important, family shelters must be funded to hire social workers trained in trauma informed care. Shelter staff must be equipped to help the children and their parents heal from this trauma. Even after reunification, the effects of the trauma will endure if not adequately addressed.
The U.S. government is responsible for traumatizing these families and has a moral obligation to fix the damage it has caused. This requires more than an executive order to end separations.
Leah C. Hibel, Ph.D., is an associate professor of human development and family studies at UC Davis, where Andrea Buhler-Wassmann is a graduate student in human development. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.