Tender Age Kids Are Already a Mess – Now Add Toxic Stress

As of this writing, President Trump has signed an executive order putting an end to his own new policy of imprisoning asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border, and by extension, taking their children away to be housed by the state. Instead, families will be detained together, rather than apart.


The child separation policy is (was??) cruel, needless, and damaging. In keeping with everything else we’ve seen from the Trump administration, it’s also being run completely by the seat of its pants, with no apparent plan to reunite families whose kids have been taken away and put into one of the many internment camps that sprung up in the last month.

What will become of the children, toddlers, and infants already in government custody? Nobody seems to know.

But what we do know is that the government has taken what it deems “tender age” children away from their parents, and put them in housing facilities that are basically prisons.

There are also reports of children as young as four being put in front of immigration judges and essentially asked to make a case for themselves.

Because that’s a thing that a four-year-old can do, right?

Normally, I write about current events from the perspective of a skeptic and conspiracy theory debunker. While there’s plenty to be skeptical about and debunk here, I’m going to talk about family separation from another angle.

I want to talk about it as a father of two “tender age” boys.

Oldest is 4, Youngest is about to be 2. And if I’d been attempting to cross into the US with them to seek asylum, they’d be taken away from me and put in a “tender age shelter.”

The children in these shelters have been described as “hysterical,” “acting out,” “crying,” and “distraught.” A New York Times story spoke of children wetting their beds, crying uncontrollably, regressing in their development, and shutting down almost entirely.

Of course they’re doing this. This is what young children do. This is what my children do. And they have a community of people who love them, not an HHS agent pushing them onto a bus to somewhere they’ve never been and know nobody.

Oldest is at an age where even minor upsets to his equilibrium (hot dogs not being cut correctly, him not being allowed to take off his shirt despite not wanting to take his shirt off) result in hysterical tantrums full of screaming and crying, where he can barely breathe.

He’s not living through his parents being jailed. He’s not living in a situation of toxic stress and denial of basic human empathy.

He’s in a family of a little means with two parents and countless family members and friends who love him.

And he hysterically melts down. All the time. Over nothing.

Sometimes he hits. Sometimes he bites. Sometimes he kicks.

He does these things because he’s four, and that’s what little ones do when they’re four. Especially boys, who are already less emotionally developed than girls, and who get so much less love than what society thinks they need.

When he gets like this, we hold him. We shush him. We rub his back. We tell him that he’s safe and loved, over and over. We try to coax him through it, or at least give him the space to feel his gigantic feelings.

We get to do this. Because we’re not in jail for misdemeanor violations of immigration law. And because he’s not in a “tender age shelter.”

The shelters themselves, at least according to the few published reports about them, seem to be clean and age-appropriate, with cribs, toys, and staff wearing protective equipment. That’s something, at least.

These places could be as opulent as Trump Tower and as well-staffed as Princess Kate’s birth hospital. But they’re shelters, where tiny little ones have been ripped away from the only people who really, truly know how to care for them during the hysterical breakdowns that accompany every single four-year-old.

These people are their parents.

Nobody other than a parent or a trained and known caregiver can give a hysterical toddler the love and reassurance they need. The touch and soothing and love they need.

They need this or they can’t thrive.

No Border Patrol agent or ICE officer can offer this. Not even an over-worked government contractor doing their best can do it. Because of laws and ethical constraints, they mostly can’t even touch the children other than for basic health and safety.

I can’t even imagine how our boys would fall apart without us. They would scream and shake and cry and regress. They do this even when they are completely safe and loved.

They certainly wouldn’t be able to answer complex questions about their immigration status or what country they came from. Who could expect them to?

The damage being done to these children’s brains and emotional development can never be calculated. Many will be forever stunted. Some will likely never be found, falling through the cracks of a policy that seems to be nothing but cracks.

In the end, nothing will have been achieved other than destroying the lives of those with nobody to advocate for them.

As a father, all I can do is shake my head and pray that somehow, these kids find their way in the world after this. I know my kids will. Because people they love can give them the love they need.

I have to hope that somehow, the people who put this monstrous and half-assed policy together remember that they also have children.