One Therapist’s Perspective on Child Separation
Many of my memories in childhood revolve around the Coptic Orthodox Church and the community I grew up in. My sister and I always looked forward to the weekends, where we spent evenings and afternoons with our friends in activities, liturgies, prayers, and Sunday school. We learned about what it meant to be a Christian, and perhaps one of the hardest lessons we learned is one we all probably can agree we struggle with now: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all you mind’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–39).
Not only did Jesus tell us we need to be 100% devoted to God, but also commands that we love our neighbor, implying that our actions and care for our fellow man as part of our duties here on earth. As a kid, this was simple. I should go to church, listen to my parents, smile to my neighbors, and be nice to my friends.
As I grew older, this became more complicated. I, like so many people, require a connection to others in order to take them into my heart. I have adapted a tool called empathy to help with this barrier, which is the ability to understand and to share the feelings of another.
it is much harder to love your neighbor as yourself, as this requires action and constant remembrance to humble oneself and remember our moral obligation to one another as humans.
I decided to become a marriage and family therapist for a myriad of reasons, but ultimately, I realized that I wanted to take this commandment and the notion of empathy into my day-to-day life. I was fortunate enough to study at a university in which we were challenged to incorporate Christian principals into our core classes and discussions.
In therapy, there is a therapeutic approach known as “unconditional positive regard,” a humanistic approach of Carl Rogers in which there is a basic acceptance of a person or client regardless of what he/she says or does.
This concept, as well as the combined teachings of Christ, has allowed me to understand things from a different, more intimate level. I am softened by my clients and have found the perfect imperfections in which they were created as the way God intended, which inspires me to see them from God’s view. As I reflect about the concept of empathy, I think about how God was reincarnated and became man to experience what we experience as mere humans, and to set an example of divinity in human form.
Most of us have become aware of the events of family separation on our US-Mexico border, and despite political orientation, many have come to agreement that this is a tragedy. Children as young as infancy are being separated from their parents due to a recent “no tolerance policy” passed in April, which has now allowed for individuals seeking asylum to be charged criminally.
In the US, children are not allowed to be kept in jails or prisons, thus creating the action of separating and housing those children in separate and often indecent accommodations. Many people are able to sympathize with the events occurring at the border, imagining the pain of those inflicted occurring to their own children.
As for me, I do not need to imagine this pain, because I have lived it.
My parents, like many Coptic Egyptians, immigrated to the United States to escape political and religious persecution. My parents came to the US with hopes and dreams to thrive economically and religiously without discrimination. Their original motivation to relocate to the US was to follow my my uncle, who had recently gained citizenship.
I can still account this event as one of the most traumatic and difficult times in my life, and so can my family.
About 3 years later, my older sister was born, giving my parents a stronger reason to remain permanently in the United States. They claimed asylum as a means to stay in the US, which was later denied when I was about 10 and my sister 11, as many asylum cases are.
Asylum was the most fitting form of naturalization, as at this point they did not wish to return to Egypt with two young daughters. They had a taste of what life was like in the United States, and knew that despite the struggles they endured, life was better in the US than it ever would be in Egypt. They had to get creative and find alternate ways to naturalize themselves. My mother was the first to gain approval for her green card through work sponsorship, to which my father was hoping to gain his through her sponsorship. Through faulty advice and ever-changing laws, he extended his work permit in order to remain legally in the country until the sponsorship paperwork was eligible.
Despite his efforts to abide by the laws, however, he was forcibly removed from the United States. My sister and I, 18 and 17 at the time, were adolescents and extremely vulnerable.
My father was not only our main financial provider, but also our main emotional and spiritual provider. The 6 years coming until we were reunited involved many financial struggles, mental health issues, isolation, excessive fear and worry, and a huge uncertainty of all our future together. I can still account this event as one of the most traumatic and difficult times in my life, and so can my family.
As I read the individual and collective accounts of the treatment and processing of these families I couldn’t help but feel personally connected to those inflicted. As I see photos, listen to audio recordings of children wailing alone in their temporary beds and housing, and read the corresponding justifications of many individuals of the tragedies occurring, I realize that we all need an important lesson about empathy.
Let us not look back at the tragedy of what’s happening at the border and think “in hindsight, we should have behaved more humanely.”
I re-experienced my trauma and my heart broke imagining more families and young children experiencing such a tragedy in much harsher conditions. I felt as if a movie was playing in my head that I couldn’t pause or stop watching.
As a Coptic marriage and family therapist, the length of this tyrannous policy and its widespread effects on the families involved has left me in utter shock. I have seen with my own child clients the impact a change in routine or a change in the family system has on their overall mental health. I can only imagine the combined journey to the border, the fearful image of parents being taken into custody, and the relocation to a building where multiple children of all ages are crying with no source of comfort can have on these children and families.
Despite what many people believe, children are not resilient, and are impacted much more dramatically to system changes and traumas. The brain is still developing and relies mostly on primal survival functions to cope. Children exhibit much more extreme physical and cognitive symptoms to stress and trauma than adults do, and their still-developing brains cannot regulate their emotions as well as an adult.
Studies are now showing that with exposed violence and other traumas in schools, communities, and at home, a child’s brain creates more neural connections that involve anxiety, impulsiveness, and fear, while less are made in behavioral control, planning, and reasoning.
As I see photos, listen to audio recordings of children wailing alone in their temporary beds and housing, and read the corresponding justifications of many individuals of the tragedies occurring, I realize that we all need an important lesson about empathy.
Essentially, exposure to such traumatic instances rewire the brain to respond in maladaptive ways and later manifest in serious mental illnesses, psychological and behavioral issues, and even developmental issues in adulthood. We need to acknowledge the long-term impacts these occurrences are having on such young and malleable children.
Many argue that it is our Christian duty to follow the law of the land, as was commanded by the Apostle Paul to the Romans “Obey the government, for God is the one who has put it there. There is no government anywhere that God has not placed in power” (Romans 13:1). I understand this action as the easier way to cope with the injustices occurring in our own backyard; however, it is much harder to love your neighbor as yourself, as this requires action and constant remembrance to humble oneself and remember our moral obligation to one another as humans.
I also cannot help but remember a quote from a protester on an image I saw in response to this justification: “The people who hid Anne Frank were breaking the law; the people who killed them were following it.” Many people flock to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and look back at the tragedy that occurred to allow Anne Frank, her family, and millions of others to die, and say they would have done better in their place.
Let us not look back at the tragedy of what’s happening at the border and think “in hindsight, we should have behaved more humanely.” We ought to remember that people and governments are susceptible to corruption, and the only perfect deed is from Christ himself, who commands us to love our God with all our heart, and to love our neighbor. Our duties are not to please governments and officials; our duties are to follow the teachings that our loving God has bestowed upon us.
We have an ethical and moral responsibility as humans to care for one another, and to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. We are allowing the laws of our country to justify separation of young children from their parents, so I am convinced we can use our own laws of protecting the best interest of children and families to reunite them.
Daniella Riad is a Marriage and Family Therapist Associate currently working at a nonprofit Christian Counseling Center in Ventura County. In her time as a therapist, she has worked solely with children and their families.
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Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. Brunswick, Vic.: Scribe Publications.
Perry, B. D., & Szalavitz, M. (2006). The boy who was raised as a dog and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook: What traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing. New York, NY, US: Basic Books.