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The Costs of Early Life Trauma



I am an immigrant. Married for over 10 years to an American husband, I am a therapist, teacher, trainer, and blogger. You might think that I’d feel confident in my place in America.  

Truthfully, I am deeply frightened, worried that somehow my still incomplete process of naturalization will be blocked and I’ll be deported. 


I should be silent and challenge nothing right now. They are deporting so many. What if they come for me?  Fear often wakes me in the night and holds me sleepless for hours.   But my knowledge of human functioning and my ethics compel me to speak out when suffering is wantonly inflicted on others.

As a therapist, I spend much of my time with clients who are trauma survivors. For the most part they are children suffering from developmental trauma early childhood abuse, or adults who were traumatized as children. I see daily the devastating impact of early trauma on my clients and their families. Trauma reaches far into the future of its victims and it is hard to undo the damage it causes.

In early life, infants and toddlers need safe, predictable, accessible, and loving caregivers to provide a foundation for further growth. When they are exposed to terrifying stress due to separation (even a short one when it is not followed by prompt reunification with their primary caregiver) or deprived from ongoing stability for extended periods, development of the brain, emotional functioning, and even the body are affected. The longer the exposure to separation or instability, the greater the injury. 


The brain develops from the bottom up. Lower parts of the brain are responsible for our survival and stress responses. The upper parts are responsible for executive functioning (like making sense of what you are experiencing or exercising moral judgement). Development of the upper parts depends on prior development of lower parts.

When stress responses are repeatedly activated over an extended period of time in an infant, brain development is compromised. This can manifest later in defiant behavior and speech and auditory difficulties. Together these are a setup for behavioral and learning difficulties (many diagnoses of Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ADHD are at root the result of developmental trauma).


Possibly even more damaging, early separation trauma damages a child’s ability to form and retain healthy attachments (emotional connection) to others. When children fail to experience caregivers as available and compassionate in times of fear and stress, they react to the entire experience of attachment as unsafe. The result is what therapists call reactive attachment disorder, which manifests in an out of balance nervous system (either hyper or hypo/numb). Often it is followed in later years with other diagnoses such as personality disorder, depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc. 


Early trauma creates a chronic sense of stress and fear that accompanies survivors relentlessly across life. Children deprived of or removed from the safety of loving care are terrified. They are wired to know that their survival hangs on others. In their small world of total dependency, the absence or disappearance of familiar, loving caregivers is similar to what an adult might experience after being informed that the world is going to end at any minute.  

Stress accumulates in a child, as it does in adults. The body remembers and reacts to repeated sensations of fear and stress. Over time, chronic stress often affects physical wellbeing as well in the form of disturbed metabolism, a compromised immune system, and difficulties with sleeping. 


Trauma is transgenerational. Although the devastating impact of trauma has been recognized for a long time, it is not as widely recognized that the pain it inflicts can impact generations to come. We now know that trauma is transferred from one generation to the next through epigenetics. It seems that the genesconveyed by trauma survivors to their children carry modifications that function to make their children particularly vigilant against the possibility of recurrence of that trauma. In other words, heightened anxiety and stress are passed on to future generations so they can better cope with what their ancestors endured.


Three generations removed from Holocaust survivors on one side, and World War One era pogroms on the other, I grew up on stories of family members separated in terrifying circumstances from one another and in several cases dying.

When I studied research documenting the transgenerational impacts of trauma, I felt that I could finally understand why I have lived my whole life with a sense of pain and grief over people long gone whom I never met.


Living daily, in both my personal and professional life, with the consequences of early life trauma, it is acutely painful to witness the trauma inflicted now on young children (and their families) at America’s borders. I have often wondered if my ancestors might have survived had those around them refused to be silent bystanders and spoken out against the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust.


It is excruciating now to witness innocent human beings around me dealt with in ways that I know will resulting in debilitating, lifelong damage to many of them. Today it is my turn to be more than a bystander.


Dr. Colleen Craft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, described her impressions from a visit to a Texas children’s shelter in an NPR report: "By separating parents and children, we are doing irreparable harm to these children. The long-term concern of what we call toxic stress is that brains are not developed efficiently or effectively”.


Craft describes a toddler "...crying and pounding and having a huge, huge temper tantrum. This child was just screaming, and nobody could help her. And we know why she was crying. She didn't have her mother. She didn't have her parent who could soothe her and take care of her."


I invite you to listen to this episode of the Circle of Willis podcast in which psychologist Jim Coan talks with five leading developmental scientists about the potential impact of this separation on children.


As I write, there are reports of a presidential executive order ending separation of children from their parents. For this I am grateful. But this does not mean that these vulnerable children are no longer at risk from decisions of adults who are deeply ignorant of or cruelly hardened to the damage of childhood trauma. 


There are those who say, “but it is the parent’s fault who bring these children.” Yet those who today live in security and comfort, clamoring for walls against newcomers are themselves grandchildren of immigrants who fled terror, persecution, poverty, and despair. I wonder how they have lost the realization that life has a way of placing us all in situations of dependency on the kindness of others or in transition across borders of one kind or another.

Walls are built from fear, and I am not immune to fear.  But more than strangers, I fear the danger of neighbors who’ve lost compassion for others. As a person, as a mother, as a mental health professional, and as a nervous immigrant myself, I feel I must raise my voice for the vulnerable.


Tags:

#DevelopmentalTrauma

#ImmigrationTrauma

#ACE

#Trauma

#epigenetics

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