cherry & co. | Toxic Stress and the Trauma of Family Separation
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Toxic Stress and the Trauma of Family Separation

Families belong together.


It’s all over the news. It’s all over social media.
Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” policy has sent this country reeling. As a first generation Pinay-American, Elementary Teacher, and Neuroscience and Education grad student, the recent distress in our already malfunctioning immigration system has been particularly heartbreaking. All I could think of while reading reports of young children, who remind me of my own students, was of the immense trauma they would have to live with; of the toxic stress they now have to overcome.


Let’s talk “toxic stress.” Toxic stress is the repeated activation of our brain’s fight-or-flight stress response. When fight-or-flight is triggered, the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline shoot through our bodies. Our hearts beat faster, our breathing becomes shallow, our digestive system shuts down, our muscles tense, and we go on high alert. While these reactions are key to survival in rare life-or-death emergencies, children with trauma-based triggers activate the fight-or-flight response multiple times a day. Without strategies for coping or nurturing caregivers, the child’s mind and body never calm down. Instead the tension and stress hormones remain, building up to what is known as toxic stress.

For young children, toxic stress is especially debilitating. It has a direct negative affect on their brain development, immune system, emotional regulation, and even their DNA. Separate studies done by the American Academy of Pediatricians and CDC-Kaiser have identified a wide range of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that result in trauma and toxic stress. The more adverse experiences you face as a child, the more likely you are to experience physical and psychological struggles as an adult. For the thousands of children being separated from their families, I can surmise five ACEs they now face:

Emotional neglect – this is the most painful one. Children need the emotional support of their family. In fact, oxytocin – the bonding hormone released when being hugged by a loved one – helps calm the stress response.  


Racism and discrimination


An incarcerated relative (and the feeling of being incarcerated themselves)


The Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice System


Displacement – these children are experiencing the trauma of being displaced more than once. First from their homelands as they legally seek asylum, and then a second time as they are torn from their families.


The trauma and toxic-stress caused by the “Zero Tolerance” policy show a blatant lack of compassion, empathy, and respect for humanity. As the country moves forward in the battle over immigration, please do not forget the families fragmented at the border.

As we fight for all who are marginalized and oppressed, remember that the trauma and toxic stress of family separation does not begin and end with the “Zero Tolerance Policy”. This heartache of separation is also experienced by refugees crossing oceans, Muslims now banned from their loved ones, children whose parents are trapped in the privatized prison system, and black mothers mourning their innocent sons. Let us remain engaged in the fight for freedom for all.

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

– Audre Lorde


Fight for reunification. Children need their parents. Hearts need a home.


Families belong together.


here are some ways you can take action:
if you are able to, donate (ACLU, RAICES, a list of more organizations compiled by Slate)
join a Families Belong Together event near you on June 30th
let your representatives know you want to keep families together by voting on this act (find your representative’s number here)
VOTE for people who speak out and take action. Register or re-register to vote here.
for more info on this topic, check out these resources:
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Doctors Concerned About ‘Irreparable Harm’ To Separated Migrant Children
“A recipe for toxic stress”: an expert on why Trump’s family separation policy is so damaging to kids
Mom and 4 children forced to separate after seeking asylum in US


featured image: illustration by ashley lukashevsky (@ashlukadraws)
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