Emotional Health

Children and the Trauma of Being Trapped

Two groups of children found themselves trapped and separated from their parents in recent weeks. Both found themselves imprisoned in scary, possibly life-threatening situations, cut off from their families and unable to communicate with them.

One group, Thai soccer players lost in a cave, galvanized the world’s attention and support. An international team worked relentlessly to free them and lost a diver who was willing to go to great extremes to rescue and reunite these children with their families.

Here in our country, migrant children taken from their parents at the border are still waiting to be rescued from their nightmare. Thousands are still separated, and while many people have been horrified by what is happening to them, the effort to reunite them is complicated, or so we are told. Worst of all, these children were not imprisoned through accident or misfortune. They were taken from their parents as part of an official policy on the part of the American government whose name used to be synonymous with freedom.

What is different about these two groups? Both are lost children—a parent and a child’s worst nightmare. Both the soccer team and migrant children found themselves in an unknown and dangerous place. Is it possible to say that the United States is now the equivalent of dark cave? The Statue of Liberty, a symbol of freedom worldwide, literally holds a torch. Symbolically, she lights the way to safety for those who are escaping danger.

One contrast between the two groups is while the soccer players, some of them refugees, are valued by the Thai government, the children of migrants are seen by the US as the dependents of unwanted people. The common horror is that no child should be imprisoned, accidentally, and especially not purposely.

Miraculously, all the children trapped in the Thailand cave were successfully rescued. But it is proving to be more difficult to reunite the migrant children with their families. What will happen next?

Both groups of children will undoubtedly suffer from PTSD—post-traumatic stress syndrome. This can take many forms: nightmares, flashbacks, generalized anxiety, etc.

Ironically, the soccer players trapped in the cave may have an easier road back to mental health. A few factors contribute to this. The soccer players are all young teens, while many of the migrant children are significantly younger. The Thai group was able to be in some contact with their parents during their ordeal. They were able to understand the parents were standing by to be with them as soon as possible. Most of the migrant children have no idea where their parents are, and the US government does not either. These children are essentially bewildered and abandoned.

The younger the child, the harder it is to make them understand what is happening. Younger children can only see the here and now, and all they understand is that their parents have “lost” them. For them, attachment to a parent is the only thing that matters, the thing that gives them a feeling of safety. They are unable to understand that their parents are not at fault.

According to a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs who are leaders in trauma research and treatment, even after a reunion, “A traumatic event might hurt the attachment between a caregiver and child due to strong feelings that get in the way of a good relationship. Sometimes a child can be angry toward her parent for not keeping her safe. Even very young children can have these feelings. Or, a parent might feel guilty about the event and this might affect the relationship.”

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