Most of us have had experience with trauma in our lives. I’ve worked with many clients who’ve reached out to me in their times of distress and trauma. I helped a single mother whose fears of losing her children brought her to therapy. As a young child, “Charlotte,” spent many evenings locked in the car alone during her mother’s long bouts drinking in the bar. When I met her, Charlotte was addicted to prescription meds. She arrived wild-eyed, hair flying, her complexion a grey pallor. She wanted to quit for her children’s sake and longed to go to a detox center but feared social services would take her children away, as they had once before.
I vowed to help my client. Aware of the damaging effects of family separation on children, I knew it was critical to protect Charlotte and her children. I’ve understood the importance of young children’s secure and consistent attachment with a parent figure since reading the work of British psychologist and father of attachment theory, John Bowlby.
My short story, “Caught in the Crossfire,” inspired by my work with Charlotte, is about the effects of children being separated from their parents. It offers hope and resolution.
As I was writing the story, I was shocked and to learn about the Trump administration’s immigration strategy of separating children from their parents, and appalled to see pictures in the news of crying toddlers, wrenched from the arms of their parents.
Psychoanalyst Dr. Nancy Burke says trauma freezes people in time. Children who are traumatized, particularly those who haven’t acquired the language to conceptualize their feelings or put them into words,a can’t say what’s frightening them. As a result, many “act out,” and are not able to relate to their parents or others in a meaningful way. Research confirms neurological and emotional consequences of separation.
Tragically, despite all the hope and joy when parents are reunited with their children, it may be a shock rather than a happy ending. Parents aren’t always prepared for the long period of recovery. Even if returning children do have language, they don’t always have access to their feelings and can’t put them into words to make relationships manageable. One child couldn’t speak, but sat in his play group chewing on a Nerf ball and biting it to pieces. Charlotte’s toddler couldn’t draw, but could only chew on crayons when she returned. As Dr. Burke points out, “normal reactions to abnormal circumstances look abnormal.”
In Charlotte’s case, the system had overreached itself in the past, by taking her children away. Yet, I do believe we have to draw the line somewhere. Children neglected by parents “under the influence” are surely at risk and, of course, we need them to be protected. I feel compassion for both the children and their parents, at the same time. Fortunately, in Charlotte’s case, we were able to help her detox without leaving her home to do it. We also mandated her attendance at our parenting skills program and followed up with family therapy for a year. After her rehabilitation, Charlotte went back to school and had a successful career as a counselor.
With regard to immigration, I believe we must change policies and practices– some politically motivated –which allow children to be separated from their parents or abused. We must not stoke the flames of hostility toward people of other cultures. Rather, we need to embrace policies which foster respect for human dignity and social justice.
I offer my resolution for the coming year, a prayer…
I pray for all of us to be all that we can be.
I pray for the sound of little voices, the nurturing of little beings, and for the miracle of a life of promise.