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Dr. Dorothy Stubbe and John Thomas America abandoned family values at the border

January 4, 2019

As pediatric psychiatrists, we embrace values that ensure that children grow up in caring families that can safeguard their physical and mental health. President Trump’s Nov. 9, 2018, proclamation, “President Donald J. Trump Is Upholding the Rule of Law and Ensuring Consequences for Those Who Illegally Cross Our Border,” represents an American policy that will damage children and families seeking refuge and asylum at our borders.

All of us have encountered patients whose life stories dramatically underline this point. Prolonged exposure to highly stressful situations at home and the journey to safety can lead to health problems and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

When the body is in a constant state of fear and tension, sleep can be disrupted; small sounds may startle; and children may lash out aggressively and lose trust in adults. All this may lead to anxiety, depression, and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. Chronic exposure to highly stressful situations can disrupt neural connections in a child’s brain, interfering with the ability to consider consequences, plan ahead, succeed academically and manage everyday frustrations. Severe and chronic stress may alter a child’s genetic makeup, adding molecules to the genome and leading to changes in the creation of proteins that are necessary for health. This genetic change may even be passed on to offspring.

Politicians along the U.S. political spectrum have long embraced family values. We agree that our country’s policies should promote and strengthen the sacred bond of family. Children in secure relationships and a safe environment in early life grow up healthier, happier, and more productive.

But there are many factors that impact the resiliency of children and families after a trauma, including the extent of the trauma, both in intensity and duration. Children tend to have more emotional scars from war or interpersonal violence than from natural disasters.

There is much that can be done to help families that are fleeing for their lives. Keeping families together is one of the most powerful buffers against stress. Meeting basic needs for safety, food, and shelter can protect against social-emotional and physical disorders. Rapid resettlement to a predictable environment with a normal daily schedule (children going to school, etc.) can be protective against the ravages of prior trauma.

President Trump’s Nov. 9 proclamation will not support the family values we share. Instead, it will increase trauma, fray family bonds, and create an environment that may damage the growing brains of these desperate children.

Although a global solution to this crisis seems unlikely in the current international political climate, the U.S. still can do its share to serve struggling children and families by prioritizing the applications of those most in need. A “children and families first” policy will go a long way toward enabling us, once again, to embrace family values.

Dr. Dorothy Stubbe is an associate professor at the Yale University School of Medicine Child Study Center. John Thomas is a professor at Quinnipiac Law School.

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