Many people watched the heartbreaking video of a mother reunited with her toddler after being separated with him. We watched in pain as the mother cried and exclaimed “what’s wrong with him” as he turned away from her as if he didn’t recognize her.
Reminder: The consequences of family separation will far out-last this administration.
— ACLU (@ACLU) August 24, 2018
This isn’t just a child that doesn’t recognize his mom, this is a trauma response following an attachment injury caused by the US government. As a psychotherapist that works with children I can’t tell you how heartwrenching this clip is to watch. I hope to explain the basics of attachment and the inner world or experience of the child in this clip.
Attachment or bonding is foundational and the building block for how we relate to our world. It is a survival strategy developed in response to our caregivers to get our needs met. A secure attachment creates resilience, leads us to form healthy relationships and have a general sense of well-being.
In order to survive the separation with his caregiver, this child learned during his time spent institutionalized that to get his needs met for comfort, food, socialization, etc. that he likely had little to no impact on his rotating and inconsistent staff of “caregivers”.
This helpless child also learned that night after night no matter how hard he cried, no matter how often he called for his mama, no matter what strategy he used, his mom did not show up. In order to survive the stress of his perceived abandonment he likely gave up trying to have any impact on bringing his mother back to him and decided it was not worth it to care because it hurt too much to want her nurturance.
His overloaded little brain couldn’t handle it. So he went numb, and became tough in order to survive this ordeal because caring hurts too much. So when his mom finally returns he can’t let her in. He doesn’t trust it. His brain says, don’t accept her comfort, be tough and independent instead, it’s safer that way.
His little brain has been so saturated in toxic stress he can’t handle moms emotional display and comfort at their reunion. Mom has been praying for this day and imagining her boy sinking into her with relief and instead she experiences rejection.
He turns away from mom, already testing her seeing if she will pursue him, waiting for her to confirm his worst fears that she will be gone again. This is now his new pattern for relationships, to keep people at a distance and suppress his own emotions.
This is problematic because without intentional intervention this child and tens of thousands of others are being set up for a difficult, lonely, and painful life. Children who are unable to heal from this experience can develop an anxious attachment style, an avoidant attachment, or a disorganized attachment style.
These insecurities in attachment can lead to a higher experience of Anxiety, Depression, relationship difficulties, personality disorders, low self esteem, delinquent behavior in juveniles, criminal behavior in adults, and suicidal ideation, attempts or completions.
This topic and its implications are heavy, but I still have hope. I hope this mom continues to chase down her boy and her consistency and repetition teaches him he can again trust and let her in. I pray he finds a way to let her back in. This is one story. One of hundreds.
These are real people with real emotions. It makes me sick that any human or government entity would willfully separate families and inflict pain and trauma on these precious ones. God have mercy on their souls. While some have been reunited there are still thousands of families separated by the wicked policy of the Trump Administration.
Keep calling your representatives folks. If you are interested in learning more about the harm of institutionalization for children and are looking for ways to donate please visit Lumos organization, also known as J.K. Rowling’s non-profit.