Science tells us that an outpouring of stress hormones shapes the way the brain develops. Trauma affects behavior, brain development, even the immune system. It’s devastating for all, but for newborns and youngest children, the impact can be profound. Megan Gunnar, professor and department chair for the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, and head of the Gunnar Laboratory for Developmental Psychobiology, has a primary focus on the impact of stress on brain and behavioral development. In this ELN interview, Gunnar discusses the consequences of the forced separation of children and parents at the southern U.S. border.
Is this an extraordinary time —given the U.S. policy of forcibly separating immigrant children from their parents—to be working in your field?
Yes, for a lot of reasons.
I am severely concerned about the ongoing separation of children from their families who crossed our southern border. Decades of research has demonstrated that early experiences not only affect behavior, but also our brain architecture and our immune system. When we traumatize young children, the resulting stress hormones and brain chemicals impact brain development. If trauma persists for days and weeks, the result can be an individual who is chronically vigilant to threat, reacts defensively at the drop of a hat, is poor in self-control and at risk of depression and poor physical health.
Forcibly separating young children from their parents, and placing them where they do not have one-on-one care by a known loving adult, do not know when they will see their parent again—and do not know anyone—is one of the most traumatic experience we could devise. Because imposing such trauma on children will likely affect some for the rest of their lives and all into the near future, our first obligation should be to return these children to their parents as quickly as possible. Until then, we must help the child and parent be in regular, frequent contact, even by phone, until they can be reunited. Beyond reuniting these families, though, we need to realize that we are returning traumatized children to traumatized parents, and provide therapeutic support to them as they all try to recover from this terrifying experience.
“Now, what’s that massive outpouring of stress hormones doing to the brain? It’s influencing the structures that are developing at that time: the hippocampus, the amygdala, regions of the prefrontal cortex. It’s shaping and affecting the way the brain is developing.” — Megan Gunnar
Given everything we know about young children, and watching that situation, you can’t just sit back, which is why the Society for Research on Child Development, American Psychological Association, Academy of Pediatrics among others have put out statements to the effect this is really horrible to be doing to children. It’s terrible.
We’re talking about children of all ages, with even the youngest being taken, and also traumatized parents, caretakers and the larger circle of family members.
Of course. The parents are traumatized before they even arrive at the border. They’re running – many of them feel like they’re running for their lives. I can’t imagine having my three year old taken away from me and not being able to find where they are, which is what has happened. And not knowing whether you’re going to get them back and not knowing what’s happening to them. Of course, at the same time, you’re feeling somewhat guilty that you set them up for this experience. On the other hand, if you had stayed home, you and your family might’ve been killed.
How does the stress of separations affect the body and the brain?
It depends on your age because your brain is at different stages of development, your understanding of what’s happening is at different points, right? So, we’re going to do this by age. When you’re very young, newborn to age three or four, your parent—your attachment figure—is your life, right? And you cannot function, you cannot live, you cannot survive without adults taking care of you, and therefore, we’ve evolved to be able to form this very powerful bond with those people and their availability creates our sense of safety and security.
So, that bond gets activated in situations where we feel unsure. Novel, strange situations, right? And in those, we seek our secure base. Now, what we’ve done there [at the border] is to put them in a very strange situation and remove their secure base and have not provided—some of those poor little babies, really—anything in return. And another child can not take care of the youngest kids.
So, for those kids we know, and so much of this is going to be based on animal literature because we don’t do this—we cannot ethically do to children what is being done to these children—ever, for research purposes. We’ve struggled even to do it to monkeys.
So, let’s say what I’ve done is I’ve taken the equivalent of an under-four-year-old child, which would be a one-year or younger monkey, separated it from its mother, put it in a strange place with a bunch of strangers and left it there. I actually did this study. What you see is a massive outpouring of stress hormones. Then they are brought down to almost normal levels but not quite, and they just stay there. They stay slightly elevated.
Now, what that’s doing to the brain? It’s influencing the structures that are developing at that time: the hippocampus, the amygdala, regions of the prefrontal cortex. It’s shaping and affecting the way the brain is developing.
We can think of it in terms of damage but a more accurate way to think of it is in terms of: what is this molding the brain to be able to do, to be able to survive in what kind of environment? It’s basically saying, okay, we’re going to shape the brain in a way so it’ll be able to survive in a really harsh environment. In many instances this means we’re going to shape a brain that will act first and think later. It’s shaping a brain that’s really vigilent for threats and reacts very, very quickly and will be biased towards seeing the world as very dangerous.
And while that’s fine for surviving a really harsh environment, it makes it really hard for kids to function and learn what they need to learn and operate in a high-information society. And it’s doing this at all ages. It’s just especially biasing that very young brain because you’re setting it on a certain trajectory, and certain older kids have a little bit of an understanding.
But if I’m five or six or seven, I’m still a very vulnerable child. I may be able to do more for my self, I may be able to seek out some relationships, but I still will be utterly petrified not knowing where I am, why I’m there and will I ever see my parent again, and why did they leave me there? Because as you get older, your parent is pretty powerful, and if you’re there then it’s because they left you there. Which is, of course, what some of these families are struggling with: they get back together and the kid’s furious. And clingy. Clingy and furious. It’s really hard.
Physiologically, stress shifts your resources away from future-oriented processes like growing, and into immediate survival. These kids, even if they got a fair amount of food, they will not grow as well because the stress system is basically saying “don’t put that energy into growth, hold it back.” You could see for some of these kids, you might even be able to, later, image their bones and see where there was a growth or rest line in the bone.
Chronic stress will also bias the body towards greater inflammation; it’s shifting the immune system. We see then, later on, a bias towards developing obesity, having cardiovascular illness and more health ailments if this continues. It’s hard to know whether this brief bout—brief meaning either a month or two, or a year—will have those kinds of long term effects. But, there actually is some animal work that suggests it might. Acute periods of separation in a monkey, if you follow that monkey up way later, that monkey has poor health. Not immediately, but as it begins to go into adulthood: poor cardiovascular health, poor metabolism, et cetera.
What kind of special care do the children and the parents need after they’re reunited?
First of all, they’ve got to be reunited as fast as possible. They need help with adjustment and dealing with the fact that they’ve all been through a trauma. Some of these families are going to do okay; they’ll manage. But many of them will probably continue to suffer.
It would be really useful to them to have some help in figuring out what the odd behaviors of their kids mean. Because when your child is constantly clinging to you and then rejecting you at the same time, that’s a pretty confusing thing. Many of these kids will probably do a bunch of acting out. They will struggle to sleep. Parents will be struggling to sleep. I mean… there’s a lot of adjustment issues that they’ll need to sort through. And we’ve seen some of these stories already: a parent who’s so excited to see their child and then their child is basically frozen in their arms and not cuddling in. We’ve seen some of those reunion images. It’s just so terribly painful.
Why can’t we assume that reunification after separation is the simple solution?
It is the only solution but it’s not the end of the story. For some families, there’ll be three or four days where there’s ups and downs and then it’ll settle back. But for many families, no. And we need to address the issue of forced separation if we want to repair the damage we’ve done. But I can’t see us ever doing that. Can you?
The other thing we’re not factoring in there is that many of these parents are traumatized before they start that trip North. I mean, this is really dangerous and scary. Some of them are coming because they’re living in poverty and are searching to make a better life for their kids. But many of them are running for their lives.
Is there anything we can we do? Say, if you are part of a family that’s going through this kind of trauma, or you’re friends with a family that has gone through it? What can we do, watch for, to help as they’re reunited and try to put it back together.
Well, the folks who are clinicians and counselors can certainly make themselves available pro-bono, and they’d need to speak Spanish. We must provide the healthcare needs that these families will have. For the best community access, maybe we should think about the cultural resources that can be supportive of their being able to cope: the strong family structures, first-generation communities and churches.