Kids' Health Suffers When They Are Torn From Their Parents, Researchers Say : Shots - Health News Though the federal government is changing its policy of separating immigrant children and parents, some children who were detained may suffer ongoing health consequences from the trauma.
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Separating Kids From Their Parents Can Lead To Long-Term Health Problems

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Separating Kids From Their Parents Can Lead To Long-Term Health Problems

Separating Kids From Their Parents Can Lead To Long-Term Health Problems

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump now says his administration is going to end its policy of separating families that come into the United States illegally. But the policy may have already done some long-term damage. Experts say the mere act of taking a child from a loving parent or caregiver can have negative consequences. I was talking to NPR's health policy correspondent Alison Kodjak about this. She says that these separations can even affect the physical health of children.

ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: So there's a lot of research out there that shows that trauma in childhood can have physical health impacts. Stress in kids, just like stress in adults, can cause damage. And one thing that can protect a child from the physical impacts of trauma is the presence of a parent. So I talked with Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. She runs the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco. It's a center that treats and does research on kids who have gone through trauma. And here's what she told me.

NADINE BURKE HARRIS: Listen. We all go through stress. But our bodies have, actually, these amazing systems to help heal and recover. For example, I think many of us are familiar with the hormone oxytocin. People call it the cuddle hormone. So it helps to shut off the stress response when it's activated. But it also helps to protect our organs from damage when the stress response is activated.

KODJAK: She says when kids are with loving parents or caregivers, that buffer kicks in and can protect their little bodies from the impacts of stress.

GREENE: OK. So being near a parent or someone who is showing you love can protect you against stress. What happens when kids don't have that person near them?

KODJAK: The studies show that kids exposed to continued trauma can have what Dr. Burke Harris calls a toxic stress response. And that means that they have that normal stress response. We've all felt it when you're surprised by someone in the dark or you get into a fender bender and your heart starts racing...

GREENE: Yeah.

KODJAK: ...Your body starts shaking. But we can get our bodies under control. When you can't get it back under control, it becomes what doctors call a toxic stress response. And here's how she describes it.

BURKE HARRIS: If kids are exposed to high doses of adversity without the presence of a nurturing buffering caregiver, the stress response becomes overactive. And so it leads to lots and lots of different health problems - changes in brain development; changes in the hormonal system, immune system, cardiovascular system and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.

GREENE: So Alison, this sounds like long-term stuff. I mean, this could be the kinds of things that kids could feel over a long period of time.

KODJAK: Yeah, they clearly could turn up later. We obviously don't know how it's going to play out with any particular child. Everybody responds to trauma differently. But the researchers I've spoken to say that these long-term impacts, this toxic stress response, can wear on your organs over years. These kids could find that they have heart disease or other health problems at an earlier age than they might otherwise have had.

GREENE: OK. So these are things that could turn up much later. We might not see these kids showing symptoms of physical problems now.

KODJAK: Not necessarily. But there's other research that suggests there could also be shorter-term impacts. Kids who have experienced trauma can have higher rates of things like asthma or immune disorders or even trouble fighting infections.

GREENE: So it's sounding like the bottom line, Alison - I mean, if kids experience this kind of stress - trauma can be especially bad for people who are younger. But all of this gets worse if you don't have a parent there with you.

KODJAK: Exactly. I mean, all of these kids have already gone through some trauma. They've been taken away from their homes. They've gone on this long journey to get to the United States border. And then just taking them away from their parent makes it that much worse.

GREENE: All right. NPR health policy correspondent Alison Kodjak, thanks a lot.

KODJAK: Thanks, David.

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