BOUNCE BACK NATION
TRAUMA, DETENTION AND BUILDING RESILIENCY IN AMERICA’S CHILDREN
Jennifer Dhillon is the Executive Director of Healthy Generations Project, a peer, community led response to trauma that builds resiliency in children and families living in public housing.
Many of us feel the harshness of the Trump detention policy personally and feel helpless to give comfort to the children or parents separated and detained at the border. The injustice of taking children from their parents and caretakers after a harrowing journey to escape violence, crime, extortion and poverty is something most of us cannot accept. But we have the elements in our national village of caring individuals to help children in our country, immigrant or not, to build resiliency to traumatic and adverse experiences. When I see adversity, I also see opportunities to help kids to become stronger from their experiences. But they need help — and that’s where we come in.
Our national village is the network of connections we make with the community of people around us as well as those who impact our lives through direct and indirect actions. Deciding to become a healing member of our village doesn’t require us to quit our jobs and dedicate ourselves to working in soup kitchens and nonprofits. We can help all American children traumatized by adversity by understanding trauma and helping them to become resilient through targeted and informed actions. It’s not rocket science, but it is brain science.
What Childhood Trauma Looks Like
Trauma is the emotional response to a terrible event. It’s the shock we feel when the worst thing we can think of happens and becomes our reality. For both children and parents, being separated is perhaps the most traumatic event they may ever go through. Decades of established science has shown us that the trauma of parental separation can cause children’s brains to develop differently, setting the stage for long term emotional, cognitive, and physical health effects.
The hormones and chemical responses the body secrets in reaction to a shocking event normally result in the fight or flight response. Inside the tiny bodies and tender developing brains of children, hormones and chemical reactions flood in, causing elevated heart rates, dilated pupils, shortness of breath, and extreme mental focus on the event at hand.
Normally, a child in terror or pain will be able to run to a parent or caregiver and be soothed, hugged, kissed and reminded they are safe. Parental actions help the child return to their natural balanced state, emotionally and biologically. But instead of regaining a state of equilibrium, traumatized children’s brains are learning that they have lost their loving connection, the bonded feeling they have with their parents. They do not understand how or when they will be reconnected to their sources of love and safety. The longer the children are in such a state, the more likely they will become hypervigilant to danger, shutting down their natural capacity to learn and explore. Over time, some children’s brains will become more concerned with survival than healthy curiosity, leading to learning disabilities, poor educational outcomes and under-achievement later in life.
On an emotional level, a child experiencing extreme experiences may never recover from the effects of heightened states of stress and trauma. Their bodies will not be able to process stress chemicals properly, so they become consistently agitated, unable to fully relax, leading some to future drug or alcohol abuse or other distracting behaviors such as early sexual encounters, overeating, and criminal activity. Children exhibit different symptoms of trauma; mutism, anger, aggression, sadness, listlessness. Most significantly, they can develop attachment syndromes that cause them to become unable to deeply reconnect with people for fear of having those loving feelings rejected or snatched away by conditions out of their control.
The physical outcomes for children experiencing extreme or prolonged adversity are also well documented. Children who grow up with trauma are more likely to die early of preventable diseases such as heart and pulmonary disease, diabetes, and even some forms of cancer. As adults, traumatized children are far more likely to attempt suicide than those who did not suffer trauma.
We all know the experience of being separated is harmful, but we don’t have to feel helpless. We can give children exposed to trauma a special kind of support that has been shown to be extremely effective in helping them to build resiliency to their pain and suffering. A child’s brain is consistently growing, learning and changing. Children’s brains are made to become resilient, they are “plastic”, meaning they adjust and heal, often pruning away negative experiences to be replaced with positive perspectives. Social interactions, environments that feel safe, and policies that promote health and learning, all contribute to healthy growth. But most important, children’s brains can relearn connections between individuals and the community, meaning we all have significant roles to play to create communities of care around a child.
The Prescription for Bouncing Back from Trauma and Adversity
According to the Harvard Center for the Developing Child, we can all help a child’s mind, body and spirit to rebound from harmful, traumatic and toxic situations by applying four “prescriptions”:
1. Stop the trauma. Immediately reunite the children with their families. We can end policies of cruelty to children by protesting, calling our representatives, and voting. Wherever we see trauma, we must apply care. Trauma can visit any child experiencing abuse, neglect, losing a parent through divorce, death or incarceration, being exposed in their families to drug abuse or mental illness. As a national village around our children, we must promulgate healthy child policies that confirm every child is precious.
2. Build connected and supportive relationships. Each encounter with any child has the capacity to heal by providing that child a sense of safety, belonging, joy, and feeling accepted. It’s a simple act to be the one who can tell a child they are special or show them that they are good just as they are. Anytime you can send a smile, give a hug, provide a toy or book, say a kind word, teach, assist and protect, do so. There are millions of ways we experience our sense of acceptance from our community during childhood, and any opportunity you have to convey that sense of loving connection, can make a difference.
It is telling that many successful people who grew in adversity, when asked, “who made a difference in your life?” will tell stories about people who helped them who were not their parents. Instead they will talk about other adults who showed them to themselves from a different light. For Oprah Winfrey, it was an elementary school teacher, who saw her intelligence and potential. For Denzel Washington it was, “My coach at the Y” who encouraged him to, “accomplish anything.” People I work with in public housing, many who are themselves survivors of childhood trauma, tell me, “My next-door neighbor showed me what it was like to be part of a family because my parents were alcoholics”; “My grandmother taught me to cook, and cared for me when my parents died”; “My coach showed me how strong I was.”
When we are trying to assist a child’s mind, brain, and body to become resilient, our job is to rewire the message of cruelty they are currently experiencing with one of caring. Each of us can do something. A bumper sticker on our car, or learning some words of kindness in their language. For some of us, it may mean we vote at every election for policies that protect children. For some, it is donations — political or charitable — that support our values for children. We may become a teacher or open an after-school program. I have a friend who mentors a child a half a world away through text, supporting him in everything from advice about girls to what classes to take.
3. Teach coping skills. Children who have been traumatized have experienced extreme distress, confusion, and will often develop a distrust of others, or create a cold detachment to the external world. Walls will go up. Coping skills are the actions we can take to help manage emotional states so they don’t back up on us, leading us to behaviors that harm.
For children, talking things out, learning how to identify their emotions and express them are useful tools for life. Traumatized children may need to learn how to self-calm through mindfulness or breathing exercises to manage anxiety. They will need to learn how to reach out for support, and who to reach out to, when feeling overwhelmed with sadness and grief. Traumatized children’s brains can be affected in such a way that their ability to manage their own behaviors and impulses become curtailed, so teaching how to delay gratification and helping them trust in a secure and ordered future is vital for success. They can learn that studying hard leads to better grades and more opportunity, dialing back anger and resolving issues nonviolently leads to just treatment, and working for a paycheck will bring a feeling of satisfaction and achievement. Traumatized children have learned that the future is fraught with uncertainty, and we need to help them see that it can be more predictable and dependable.
For children who have learned to become detached from feelings of love and safety, they must again attach to someone. In teaching coping skills, we cannot forget their parents and caregivers. They too have suffered trauma and will need healing, and they are the most vital component to healing children. We must prepare them for how children who have been through trauma behave. They may not talk. Their personalities may change. They may become aggressive, angry at the parents who could not protect them from being taken, or they become excessively clingy, never wanting their caregiver or parent to leave them, even to make a meal or go to the bathroom. These are the hallmarks of attachment disorder. We must understand and accept that for them, trusting again may be a lifelong challenge to healing.
4. Help a child feel part of a larger tradition, community or faith. This is still, after all, America. We are the place where anyone can or should be able to come, find their place, feel accepted, set a goal, and reach a dream. This is the best version of who we are as a country. We can be the ones who sustain the positive and inspiring American traditions of supporting any child who arrives at our shores or at our borders regardless of legality or illegality of their parents’ actions. Americans embrace the downtrodden, accept the different, and exalt the ones that can bounce back up from whatever the world has thrown their way, from holocausts to pogroms, genocides to famines, religious persecutions to slavery, all of us can make it here if at least some of us can offer a caring hand.
We are the ones who can build resiliency. We are the strength of our nation who continue to find our power and courage in the ties we feel within our own families, neighborhoods, social circles, and national affiliations. We are the people who have enough to give to heal hurting children. We are the ones we have been waiting for to save children we see in trauma.