ITHACA, NY (WSKG) – In January, a group of Cornell Law students and one of their professors returned from working at the U.S. Mexico border. They were providing free legal help to families in Texas and Tijuana. Some of the children’s behavior was unsettling to the students.
It was the smiles that really impacted second year Cornell law student Adriana Victoria Inojosa.
“They freeze and they just look at you,” she said. “And they smile. And they get this huge grin and they just look at you quietly and smile. And no matter what questions you ask them you never get more than a nod or a head shake.”
“The smile was for the interviewer,” explained Dr. Jacob Ham, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience at Mt. Sinai in New York City. “It was a way to look like you’re participating. It’s almost like, um, ‘I’m not a threat, be nice to me.’ The intention was more interpersonal rather than related to the trauma.”
Even so, Diana Caraveo Parra, another of the law students says, hearing their moms tell stories about their abuse affected children as young as 2 or 3 years old.
“Sometimes,” Parra said, “they’d just know their mom’s upset about something and hand them some tissues.”
That’s a pretty normal response, according to Ham.
“Whenever there’s distress it get shared between the mother and the child,” he said. “And the natural response is to seek comfort or to give comfort.”
But some kids reacted to their moms distress completely differently. Parra found it unnerving.
“The oldest daughter would just laugh and mock her mom the entire time.”
“What I hear,” said Ham, “is that the child is experiencing both extreme discomfort, that’s the laughter part. But the mocking part is…whenever you’re terrified like that you don’t ever want to be that vulnerable and that much of a target for violence again.”
Hostility to someone else’s weakness, can appear in kids as young as eight. Ham says it’s a way of reacting to their own powerlessness. They identify more with the perpetrator, rather than the victim. It can last into adulthood even when they don’t remember witnessing domestic abuse.
Ham says any child who’s experienced trauma need safety, routine and predictability. He says they also need, “the opportunity to freak out, to be vulnerable and to be scared again. It’s a long road to come back from trauma.”
The students are giving a public presentation February 1 at the Cornell Law School about their work at the border.