Nearly 2,000 immigrant children were separated from their parents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border unlawfully this spring, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Many pediatricians have expressed concerns about the effects this traumatic event could have on those children.
Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, visited a shelter in Texas' Rio Grande Valley where some of these children are held. She spoke with All Things Considered's Audie Cornish about that visit on Monday. She said she's concerned that the stress the children are going through will have long-term health effects.
Stress triggers the release of fight-or-flight hormones, including epinephrine, cortisol and norepinephrine. When children are separated from their parents those hormones are increased and remain in the system, putting the child on high alert, Kraft said.
"What we know is in that absence of that loving caregiver these stress hormones become toxic to these kids," she said.
Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child defines toxic stress as "prolonged activation of stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships."
Kraft described her visit to the shelter, saying that a lot about it was child-friendly. But she saw an issue when she entered a room full of toddlers.
"We normally see kids who are toddlers [are] rambunctious and are running around and laughing and playing, and you didn't see that there," Kraft said. "What we saw were a number of little kids keeping pretty quiet to themselves, some of them playing with toys, and one little girl in the center of the room who was sobbing and wailing and crying."
Kraft said the girl was inconsolable.
"We all knew what the problem was. We all knew that this little child needed her mother, and none of us could give that to her," Kraft said.
It's normal for children to experience some daily stress and, when buffered by the presence of their parents or family members, it is how they learn to develop healthy stress response systems, Kraft explained.
"Development is built on the foundation of a solid parent-child relationship and as little babies we connect with that caring parent who helps us through our concerns with feeding and sleeping and helps us calm down when we're upset," Kraft told NPR.
But when periods of toxic stress last longer and there is not a parent to intervene this can have long-lasting health effects on children, including disruptions in brain development and harm to other systems.
"We know with time what this does is it causes inhibition in being able to learn and being able to have executive function and being able to avoid alcohol and drugs and other things that are bad for you and being able to be successful in school," Kraft said.
Eventually, toxic stress can lead to chronic health conditions.
On Wednesday, President Trump announced he intends to sign an executive order to end family separations. House Republican leaders have also been working on legislation that they say would be a "compromise" that would modify the current policy and allow most parents and children to remain together if they are detained.
Kraft said this change would make a difference for the children because it would remove them from a toxic stress situation and into one that is tolerable.
"Children can go through traumatic episodes in their life," Kraft said. "In fact, this is called tolerable stress. So something awful and stressful happens to a child, but when they have that loving caregiver who can respond to their needs, they can calm down those stress hormones — they can help them become resilient."
Andrea Hsu and Renita Jablonski produced and edited the audio version of this story. Wynne Davis and Carmel Wroth edited and produced the story for the web.