There is an important scientific fact that we need to be aware of as the political drama at the border unfolds: when children are separated from their parents, they can be damaged for the rest of their lives.

Research shows that when children face strong, frequent, or prolonged adversity without adequate support from adults, it causes a stress response that can have terrible consequences. This “toxic stress” affects both the mind and the body.

It disrupts normal brain development, leading to not just emotional problems, but problems with thinking and learning. Children who are exposed to toxic stress have a higher risk of depression and substance abuse. They are more likely to drop out of school, engage in risky behaviors, and commit suicide.

The health risks are serious as well. When the physical stress response of the body — the “flight or fight” response — is turned on for prolonged periods of time, it causes damage to body organs. Children who are exposed to toxic stress have a higher risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and lung disease, among other problems — and are more likely to die early.

The earlier in life the stress starts, the worse it is for children. Not only are young children more fragile, their brains are still developing. In order for young brains to develop normally, they need ongoing nurturing interactions with adults, something called “serve and return.” When these interactions don’t happen, it can literally and permanently change the architecture of the brain. The damage can be devastating, and it can’t be undone.

Remember, these are children who have already endured toxic stress — not just the stress of the journey to our border, but the poverty or violence or both that caused their parents to make the journey. They need us to help when they arrive, not make things worse.

Taking children away from their parents at the border and putting them into detention centers or foster care isn’t just sad. It can cause harm that lasts forever, even if they are ultimately reunited with their parents. It can change their future — and shorten their lives. That goes beyond sad: it is cruel.

It is clearly wrong to use children as pawns in any battle, especially a political one. But what is happening at the border goes beyond using children as pawns. The science is clear. We are literally ruining their lives. And the only reason we seem to be doing it is to make a point.

This is more than wrong. It’s unconscionable.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

The post Separating children and parents at the border causes lifelong damage appeared first on Harvard Health Blog.

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