In many of the stories presented here we have seen that exposure to traumatizing experiences is a very possible and frequent occurrence in these children’s lives, no matter what their age.
Trauma can happen in many forms: one of the most common is through living with parents or caregivers who are abusive or neglectful. In fact, in the general population of this country it is known that 80% of human trauma occurs within the family setting. Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, a leading expert in trauma research calls this form of trauma Developmental Trauma Disorder (2005, 2014) and he proposes that this condition be included as a new mental health disorder. Children who have experienced chronic, prolonged abuse or neglect from the people they depend on often experience a broad spectrum of developmental delays including cognitive, language, and motor as also, socialization skills. These children have a tendency to reenact their trauma throughout their lives by fearful reactions, aggressive and sexual acting out, avoidance and numbing responses and uncontrolled emotional reactions. As seen in the discussion about attachmentThe capacity to regulate emotions and reactions is built in the child’s relationship with an attuned and well emotionally regulated adult. If the child experiences difficulties in early experiences with the caretaker, either through early attachment disruption and/or abuse, they present with affect dysregulation. This can show as hyper-arousal: children are reactive, hyper-vigilant, alarmed, prone to aggression or flight, or it can show as dissociation, then they become disengaged, numb, compliant and inattentive. All of these are part of the adaptive human response to a life threatening experience present in humans as well as in other animal species. If the child experiences neglect, as it happens when he/she is left cold, hungry, or unattended, the child experiences fear. If the experience continues for a longer time the fear can turn into terror. This is further compounded by the fact that the neglected child often lacks the stimulation that impacts cognitive and social development, thus remaining unable to understand the self and others. (Extracted from Calmer Classrooms-A Guide to Working with Traumatized Children from the Department of Child Safety, Australia, 2013.)
In a second instance, young immigrant children may experience trauma as a result of witnessing violence in the communities where they grow up. This violence may be directed towards people they love, or they may live under the threat of gang members making their families victims of extortion. Or, they may witness violence to their mother or caregiver in the hands of an abusive partner or husband, an equally terrifying experience made even more painful because of their inability to defend the victim. They may become victims themselves of emotional, physical or sexual abuse by older siblings, or adults in the extended family. All of these are some of the many situations that can expose them to experiences of disempowerment, extreme fear and isolation conducive to trauma.
Then, in a third instance, as the terrifying stories we read about the children crossing the border allow us a glimpse at the many dangers they may face, there are again many opportunities for them to be faced with traumatizing experiences trying to reach their destination: entering the United States. This has been well documented in the Report of the Committee on Migration of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Mission to Central America: The Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States.” (November 2013). There are many predators along the way waiting to take advantage of both adult and young immigrants attempting to cross the border, threatening them, making them victims of extortion, sexually or physically assaulting them and even taking their lives at times. So these children can be exposed as witnesses of this violence, or directly as targets.
And finally they can again be exposed to violence, emotional abuse, or become victimized, after their arrival into the new family, as we are made sadly aware in reading some of the stories narrated earlier.
Of course, this is not to say that every immigrant child will go through emotionally scarring experiences; nevertheless it is essential for the adults working with them to be informed about the consequences of trauma at different ages in order to recognize and help the young victims and their parents when trauma is present. Next, we will explore together how this is described in the literature and what this means in terms of diagnosis and intervention.