“We Are Better Than This”
I visited Dilley, Texas, in 2015 as part of a research team investigating practices at detention centers that housed migrants from Central America. Our study was commissioned by the Unitarian Universalist Church in order to report on and make recommendations regarding practices related to detaining migrants at that time. Again, remember that was 2015 and took place during the Obama administration. The findings of that study can be viewed in detail here. But, I would like to address statements by the Trump Administration who claim that practices of separation predated their own policy that began in May of 2018.
It’s true. Under Obama’s administration families were separated. We heard one particularly chilling story about a mother who was housed with her young daughter in one facility in Texas while her deaf son had been separated from her, and placed in another facility in Texas. The father was at a third facility in another state.
That said, the policies at that time reflected a disorganized immigration system in which decisions about placement were largely a function of whichever employee was tasked with assigning migrants to facilities at a particular time on a particular day. It was disorganized and chaotic, and the individual personalities of whoever was in charge seemed to be the deciding factor in a family’s fate.
That’s not to say that President Obama wasn’t responsible for what happened under his administration—he was. However, what we saw in 2015 was different from the current policy adopted in May of 2018, in which a well-organized machine is systematically removing children from parents as a general and mandated practice.
In this essay, I’m going to discuss attunement, attachment, and the impact of separation of children from primary caregivers.
In the first several years of life, and especially between the ages of 6-18 months, parents and children engage in a multitude of micro-level interactions that we call attunement. More or less, attunement is the way in which a primary caregiver and child respond to small, nonverbal cues given off by the other. Attunement is responding appropriately to the cues of the other (being able to sense what they want and are communicating), and these individual interactions build upon each other in a series of back and forth nonverbal cues from child to caregiver.
(For more on attunement watch this excellent video.)
Combined, these micro-level interactions, and the attunement of caregiver to child, facilitate the bond we refer to as attachment. More or less, attachment is the bond between a child and primary caregiver on which the child can dependably rely to have basic caregiving needs met–including food, shelter, security, and love.
(Again, there is a great article here that explains attachment better and in more detail than I will now.)
There are different forms of attachment: secure attachment, and three subtypes of insecure attachment. Almost everyone forms some level of attachment with their primary caregiver. Yet, the absence of attachment is documented in extreme situations such as overcrowded orphanages in which there is minimal opportunity for this give-and-take relationship, or in cases of extreme neglect. Although that attunement is especially important in the early years, attunement and attachment between child and caregiver remain important throughout development as children learn to take risks, work through problems, and become independent.
These primary attachment relationships are especially foundational to future relationships, and for something we call self-regulation. Self-regulation, especially emotional regulation, is foundational to the choices and consequences that happen to us over our lifetime. An individual’s ability to control his or her frustration, disappointment, excitement, and worry is essential to later success in life. Kids struggle with this skill as they are younger, and gradually strengthen their abilities, in the context of that attachment relationship.
Think of those micro-level interactions I described earlier. Now imagine how many times small interactions happen daily between a child and caregivers, along with his or her peers, teachers, employers, etc.. Not surprisingly, kids and adults who struggle with controlling their emotions, also struggle with school, relationships, employment, and even the law. This isn’t just something I have merely read about academically or lectured about when teaching graduate students. I’ve seen this over and over with many kids in my practice as a psychologist, and as a school psychologist.
The impact of separating children from their primary caregivers has been repeatedly documented. In his book, Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They shape Our Capacity to Love, Robert Karen describes how James Robertson, a social worker, studied and documented the impact of long term hospitalization on children and their emotional development in 1948.
In those days it was believed to be best practice to separate hospitalized children from parents. Children were hospitalized for weeks or months and only allowed to see their parents on Sundays. In observing this, Robertson documented three phases of separation that occurred:
1) Protest in which children cried, clung to their parents, and screamed after they left. Karen writes, “In this stage the child is frightened, confused, and urgently looking for his lost mother, turning anxiously towards any sound that might herald her approach.”
2) Despair: in which the child becomes “listless, loses interest in his surroundings, turns away from food, and sheds only occasional tears. He desperately wants his mother but is losing all hope of getting her back.”
3) Detachment: “in which the child seems to awaken more to the possibility of ward life. He interacts more, he smiles, he eats. But he has awakened a different child. He no longer seems to know his mother when she comes, to cry,” or even to appear concerned when she leaves.
Some people might read about this third stage and call it resiliency. Make no mistake: this is NOT resiliency. This is detachment, learning that one cannot depend on close others for caregiving and meaningful relationships. This is the beginning of a sense that one cannot connect with others, or experience close, intimate relationships.
Resiliency is a result of close, loving relationships in which a child learns to self-soothe in the context of a caregiver who models this ability, and shows that basic needs such as love, warmth, food, shelter can be dependably met.
The first two stages described by Robertson were observed in the short term ward of the hospital in 1948. The last stage was observed in the long-term ward for children treated for tuberculosis.
Eventually, the research done by pioneers in the field of attachment was gradually accepted, and we have since adopted practices that help facilitate this bond. The understanding of the paramount importance of this bond shapes hospital and childcare settings and practices.
Despite this knowledge, in our immigration policy, now we have gone back to the dark ages of attachment by ripping children from their parents and placing them in tent cities.
Advances in neuroimaging have allowed us to study just how this situation plays out in the developing brain. The brain is an organ that develops in response to experience. It mirrors its environment, which means that the very best and very worst experiences faced by children don’t just impact the brain, they become the architects that shape the brain. What we know about brain development is very relevant to our current policy of how we treat and care for children and their parents crossing our southern border.
(For more information about the details of the impact of separation on health and brain development, please read this statement put out last week by the American Academy of Pediatrics.)
I’m familiar with the affects of separation at a very personal level because I am an adoptive parent. My boys became a part of our family at age 30 months and 19 months. Beyond understanding of this principle academically, I have seen my own children fight with its affects. I have held both of my children when they are inconsolable, presumably triggered by some memory or reference to their life before me. Holding and rocking a child who is sobbing because they don’t know why they were given up, who felt that tearing of bond in a way that feels visceral and primal is not an experience one forgets.
It wrecks you, the person who is picking up the pieces, because you know this wound is deep, and may haunt this small child for the rest of his life.
I think of rocking my children’s small bodies when they sob, something that still happens—and then I imagine the scale of this immigration policy, two thousand children who are frightened, hearing a language they don’t understand, and eating food that tastes strange. Seeing guards in uniforms, being scared of bigger kids, and lying awake at night wondering what has happened to their parents. Wondering why the adults in their lives haven’t come for them. I imagine their parents, wracked with grief, a sense of (unearned) guilt, helplessness, and intense fear as they try and fail to protect those for whom they risked everything by coming here.
We are better than this.
Claire Thomas-Duckwitz, M.A., Ph.D., L.P., is a licensed psychologist currently in private practice. She specializes in working with children and adults with neurodevelopmental disabilities such as autism, learning disabilities, or ADHD and who have experienced disruptions in development due to trauma or neglect, attachment problems, brain injuries, or adoption-related issues. She has worked both domestically and in an international capacity addressing trauma, attachment, and the intersection of these with disability. Dr. Thomas-Duckwitz has conducted research investigating secondary trauma in mental health practitioners in a border city in Mexico and on the impact of detention practices on migrants from Central America. She is an adjunct faculty member at The University of Northern Colorado, and she has worked in Colorado public schools. Some of her clients have been young adults struggling with ADHD and autism as they try to navigate college and work life. In addition to providing therapy and evaluations for individuals, she also provides training and consultation for parents and organizations in order to maximize the developmental potential of this population. Her website is: navigatingsolutions.net
(Copyright 2018 Claire Thomas-Duckwitz, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.)
This essay also appeared on Daniel Kowalski’s LexisNexis® Legal Newsroom Immigration Law
Photo of kids resting in one of the temporary cages set up at a facility in McAllen, Texas, courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP