The Center for Trauma Recovery and Juvenile Justice

Treating Traumatized Immigrant Children

Q&A with Julian Ford, Ph.D., Director, Center for Trauma Recovery and Juvenile Justice

Q

How is trauma impacting these young people?

They are impacted by violence in their countries of origin and on the journey to the U.S., as well as by race-related and institutional trauma in this country. Many develop a sense of fear, distrust, and even hopelessness that interferes with relationships, school, adjustment to new communities, and their physical health. These problems can persist for many years.


Q

What behaviors do they exhibit as a result?

These youth are often distrustful as a result of trauma, and can be very withdrawn or impulsive in an attempt to protect themselves from further trauma. This is a form of “survival coping,” which results from chronically not feeling safe. Justice involvement can occur when these youths feel that they must take extreme steps to protect themselves, which can lead to breaking rules — such as at school — or confrontations with law enforcement.


Q

How can physicians provide the best care to these patients?

Immigrant youths and their families, especially recent newcomers, have come to the United States in a period of turmoil and controversy that has heightened the stress they face in coming to a new country and new community. Many may feel reluctant to seek health care for fear of facing prejudice or discrimination. Providing a clear message of welcome and acceptance, in addition to showing interest in learning and respect for their culture and traditions, is essential to forging a positive treatment relationship — and can reduce patients’ anxieties and contribute to better health outcomes.

Expect that it will take some time, often several visits, for these youths and their families to feel sufficiently trusting and safe to fully and actively engage in dialogue and the treatment process. Patience and consistency on the part of the health care professional are a crucial counterbalance to the often harsh and even traumatic encounters many have had with putative helpers and institutional officials during their journey and once in the United States.

Explaining the nature and limits of confidentiality can help reduce fears about being subject to immigration sanctions.


Q

Is there a plan in place to help youths who suffer from this type of trauma?

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has established more than 15 programs nationally for these youths. [The Center for Treatment of Developmental Trauma Disorders and The Center for Trauma Recovery and Juvenile Justice, of which Ford is the director, are members of the network.] This network was established by the federal government in 2001, and its centers provide public education, counseling, advocacy, and behavioral health treatment services for children and families, as well as consultation to community leaders and policymakers.