“Do You Know Any 3-Year-Olds That are Criminal or National Security Threats to the United States?”

Disclaimer: I am not a professional in psychiatry, and my information is several decades old. That being said…

Long ago and far away, I did editorial work for a psychiatrist whose specialty was early childhood depression. Given that my degree is in Theatre, and the sort of writing I do is mostly resolutely fictional, this might seem like a bad match, but Paul was not a native English speaker (his first two languages were Arabic and Spanish), and what he wanted me to do was help him draft articles, and later a parenting book, using his his ideas and experience. I was his “popular” writer.

In order to do the work properly, I had to watch hundreds of hours of him doing therapy with mothers and infants. Paul’s work was specifically with caregivers whose own psychiatric problems made them unable to interact with their infants in a healthy way, which led to “failure to thrive,” (infant depression). If a baby cries and Mama responds, over time this gives the baby the sense that the world can be managed; if a baby cries and Mama does not respond, or responds in an ineffective way, the baby gets the sense that nothing she does is going to help. This is learned helplessness, and it can create destructive emotional patterns that last a lifetime. I watched Paul working with caregivers with severe psychoses, encouraging them to imitate emotionally appropriate parenting, which would elicit positive responses from the baby which, in turn, created a feedback loop which encouraged the caregiver to continue engaging–it was beneficial to the caregiver as well as the child.

At the same time I was reading a lot of the “literature” on attachment disorders and learned helplessness. Many of the studies were on children who had survived the great horrors of the 20th century–WWI, WWII, and the post-war era. Some studies followed kids whose families were simply not healthy–where the oldest child became the caregiver at 7 or 8, where one parent abused the other, extreme poverty–the whole parade of Movie-of-the-Week horrors. And some kids came out of these situations relatively sane and functional, and others came out… ruined. The difference appeared to be the child’s own innate resilience, and how much control they felt they had in a situation.

But I’ll tell you what: no matter how resilient a child might be by nature, being taken away from your rightful grown-up is going to leave lasting, horrendous scars on the psyche of a child. So when the video below came across my Twitter feed, I could not look away, and I kept thinking of Paul, and how horrified he would be by what our government is doing at the border.

These are children who will carry scars for their full lives. You want to cripple an entire generation of a community and push them to fulfill your worst predictions? Convince those kids that nothing they can do will improve their lives, that there is no point in learning, loving, or working for the better lives their parents want for them.

Paul died way too young, but I can imagine his outrage with what is happening in our country now. He could have explained in detail what the psychiatric ramifications of family separation are. But you don’t have to be a psychiatrist specializing in infant depression to know that what we are doing to families at the border is wrong.  And you damned betcha I’m angry.

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