The serious long-term effects of childhood trauma

The excellent radio program Innovation Hub had an episode that dealt with various aspects of the issue of separating children from their parents at the borders, starting with how the US went from being a country with open borders to one, in the 1920s, with strict quotas.

Then it had a segment on the shocking discoveries about the extent of the permanent detrimental mental and physical effects of childhood trauma on later life. They found that children who had one or more adverse childhood experiences such as neglect or abuse or separation from parents or a parent who was depressed or suffered from substance abuse ended up being a lot sicker than others. This was not just psychologically effects such as depression but physical effects such as heart, lung, and liver disease, diabetes, fractures, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and premature death. They found that life expectancy was shorted by as much as twenty years.

Not that this information will have any effect on Donald trump and his supporters. They probably think that it is a good thing that these people suffer and die early.


  1. Allison says

    The “being a lot sicker” is the least of traumatized children’s problems. The psychological and neurological effects are far worse and far harder to heal, and the physical suffering and reduced life expectancy are simply side-effects of that. It’s a lot like what happens to Holocaust survivors or soldiers who have been in continuous combat for a long time. (Cf.: the thousand-yard stare.) It’s bad enough when it happens to adults, but when it happens to children, especially young children, whose minds and personalities haven’t yet formed, it distorts their humanity. If you want to know more about it from a medical perspective, Judith Herman and Bessel van der Kolk have written good stuff on it.

    The only comparison I can think of is to imagine setting off dynamite inside someone’s brain, except that you don’t get to die of it (unless you’re lucky), the blowing-up just goes on and on, day after day. Your brain gets rewired so that the trauma never goes away. You can’t trust. You feel like you are no longer human. You’re the walking dead. A fair number develop “split personalities.” (I know a few people like that.)

    You learn to cope (well, some of us do), mostly by pretending to be normal and stomping down the pain whenever it forces its way into your consciousness. (The technical term is “dissociation.) But the pain and terror don’t ever really go away. You can pretend to have a life, but at some point, you end up not caring about anything but not feeling the pain. All those anti-drug and suicide prevention programs are just a sick joke when compared against what you go through every day. Measured against a never-ending hell, the loss of a few decades of life expectancy doesn’t seem like that big a deal.

    One of the strongest defenses against the damage of trauma is a connection with people who make one feel safe. For children, it means familiar care-givers. And the strongest predictor of how bad the damage will be and how hard recovery will be is whether the child has had someone they feel safe with. By separating children from their families, the US government (our representative, keep in mind) is not only severely damaging them, but also destroying their capacity to ever heal.

    The only word I can think of for what the US is doing is “atrocity.” We’ve become a country for whom committing atrocities has become normal.

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