Psychological Impacts of Childhood Trauma

Psychological Impacts of Detention & Separation on Children

By Brittney Palmer

Data collected from southwest border apprehensions in the United States during 2013 show 3.6 percent of those apprehended were family units. Fast forward to 2017 and that number jumps to 24.9 percent.

According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Most mental, emotional and behavioral disorders have their roots in childhood and adolescence.” Children who experience stress and trauma in relation to crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are vulnerable to trauma-related issues. This trauma may be even more acute when children are separated from their family members and detained at the border. Such separations and detentions occurred in the Spring and Summer of 2018 as part of the Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance policy. Children’s stress and trauma often turns into psychological disorders that can be short term or long term. The concern for children who are undocumented grows when alarming data is discovered.

An example of these alarming data points would be “in a U.S. study of 70 detained asylum seekers researchers found that 77 percent of the group had clinically significant symptoms of anxiety, 86 percent had depressive symptoms and 50 percent displayed symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.”

Many different types of psychological issues are commonly observed among children in detention centers. Some that have been observed are separation anxiety, disruptive conduct, nocturnal enuresis, sleep disturbances, night terrors, sleepwalking, and impaired cognitive development. Some psychological issues that have been observed and watched a bit more closely due to the level of seriousness that they hold are symptoms of psychological distress like mutism and refusal to eat and drink.

The psychological effects of family separation and detention in children could be long term including difficulty regulating emotions and forming healthy relationships. Separation and detention also can lead to an “impaired sense of self ” in children. Constantly being in survival mode can warp a child’s view of the world and how they interact with others.

When a child’s brain is continuously under stress, that stress hinders proper development. Instead of learning social cues and problem solving, children are focused on survival.

Some children never recover from such trauma and stress-related psychological issues; however, if they are provided with the help that they need to overcome such stresses like responsive and nurturing care, they could have a shot at living a normal life.

Julie Knudsen, supervisor of pupil services for Norristown Area School District, believes the best way to help get a child back to a healthy psychological state is by providing them with a “healthy social relationship.”

“The number one intervention that has been proven successful is a relationship...the human relationship, safety and building those connections” Knudsen, said.

Knudsen believes healing from trauma is possible but you need the right kind of intervention.This intervention includes building a strong relationship with the child and helping them to feel safe as well as having someone to talk to. 

While these relationships are important and crucial to make in order to help a child heal. Knudsen maintains that it is not always going to be easy. “Part of the traumatic experience is pushing people away and not having those healthy social relationships” she added.

While a strong relationship full of patience, understanding and love is a good way to help children affected by trauma and stress related issues, Knudsen mentioned that children must also be taught to self soothe or self regulate their emotions.

Pinching your finger or having a glass of water are two ways Knudsen mentioned in which children can soothe themselves.

Some other self-soothing techniques include listening to music, breathing techniques, humming, stretching and even looking at a fish tank.

These steps will help children process what they are going through and ultimately push through it.

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