Daniel Keating, the author of Born Anxious: The Lifelong Impact of Early Life Adversity—How to Break the Cycle, says quickly reuniting families that have been separated at the border is imperative.
You’ve recently gone on TV and written several op-eds and blogs about the long-term perils of separating immigrant children from their parents. Why are you speaking out?
Daniel Keating: I have two goals. The first is that, like a huge number of folks throughout the country, I was appalled by our government taking children, even very young children, away from parents who’ve come to the U.S. border requesting asylum. I view it as is a horrific humanitarian crisis that deserves to be spoken out about. It has a high probability of causing substantial long-term psychological and biological harm to completely innocent individuals—children—in order to achieve policy goals. I wanted folks to understand that this isn’t just something these kids will “get over.” That’s not at all the case.
My second goal was to get the message out that, besides this horrific instance, there are lots of things that we do as a society that inflict early-life adversity and stress and trauma on kids. As a nation we have a number of policies that increase our stress, overall as a society, which is leading to a pretty well documented stress epidemic.
Based on your research, what long-term health impacts do you expect to see in these children, and what’s the process by which this happens?
DK: There are two pathways stress or trauma can take to get under the skin and have a long-term impact. One is through neural pathways. The second is through epigenetics.
In the neural pathways, we see changes to the brain that are important in terms of how individual stress systems will function: how anxious or fearful a child is likely to be going forward, whether they interact with other individuals easily or with difficulty, and the kinds of practical learning and thinking challenges they face. Early adversity and high stress and trauma cascade into the body’s systems. Carried over a long period of time, an excess of the stress hormone cortisol—which is part of the stress system function—can affect the cardiovascular and digestive systems and metabolics. It can affect everything, basically. At the population level, high-stress adversity is substantially associated with less longevity and early mortality.
In the case of epigenetics, when there’s extremely high stress, even in the womb or in early life, there can be what’s known as an epigenetic change. In this case the change specifically applies to the stress system. The stress system has a kind of “feedback loop” that tells you when to stand down, when it’s safe to relax. When there’s too much cortisol in the womb, or in the baby or young child, one of the key genes that controls that feedback loop becomes, in a sense, disabled, and the body is unable to shut down the system as it should. That, in turn, causes a cascade of stress as well.
How does the length of separation affect a child’s trauma?
DK: The evidence is that the younger the child, the more likely there is to be long-lasting harm. The length of separation is also a factor. If reunification happens within a few days, the odds of long-term damage aren’t huge. But when you get beyond that period of time, the chance of creating significant harm go up substantially. One of the things we’re now looking at is the recent ruling by a judge that says that reunifications for children under five have to happen within 14 days and reunifications with children older than five have to happen within 30 days. Bureaucratic barriers will extend the length of the separation and very substantially increase the risk of long-lasting harm to the children.
After these families have been reunited, what, if anything, can the parents do to diminish the long-term harm to their children?
DK: The biggest way to mitigate the harm is to establish and nourish a strong social connection with the child. As much as possible, simply through loving interactions, make it feel like these children are in a safe and predictable situation, a predictable space. That kind of social connection is the best way we know to enhance resilience. Another way is to try to give these children some sort of age-appropriate narrative frame that says, “Yes this happened, and boy that was difficult, but we’re looking forward. We may be facing problems, but we’re going to overcome them together.”
But those are hard things to achieve—particularly if you’re in detention and you don’t know what’s going to happen. The parents themselves are going to be super-stressed out, so it’s very difficult for them to provide that strong nurturing social connection and frame it to seem like everything’s going to be OK. Often they’re arriving with a whole history of stress and trauma to begin with. It’s not as though this is some calm, settled, middle-class family that experienced something bad for a little while, and now they’ve got it all back together again.
What further steps do you intend to take personally? What steps can public institutions, such as the University of Michigan, take?
DK: I plan to continue to get word of what we understand about the science out in as many different places as I can. I’m talking to professional organizations that work with kids who have experienced trauma, and I’m urging the national and international research organizations to which I belong to take a stance. They are in a position to do so, much like the American Academy of Pediatrics did when they took a stance explicitly on this policy issue. Any organization that’s involved in any way with the science of child development or related policy issues should be out there on the forefront. We can have policy disputes about other issues, but there’s no disputing that this is a horrific thing. We know that it harms people, and it just has to stop.
As much as possible, the university should give a platform to researchers who have something to say about this. Bring that science to the public—whether it’s basic science and biology or policy research. U-M is an authoritative source for information that speaks to what’s going on. That’s an essential role.