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How to Talk to Your Kids About Families Being Forcibly Separated at the Border

America is not exactly an easy place to live right now. Coming to terms with current events like the forcible separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border is difficult enough for adults, but should you approach these tough topics with kids? We spoke with several mental health professionals to get their advice on how to explain to your child what’s going on and how to protect their mental health.

Be sure your message is age-appropriate

What — and how — you tell your children about unsettling events in the news largely depends on their age.

“You don’t want to discuss too much with a young child and scare them more than they may already be, but you also don’t want to discuss too little with an older child causing them to come to their own conclusions,” says Patti Sabla, a licensed clinical social worker in Hawaii.

Therapist, educator and author Shadeen Francis, who specializes in social justice issues, agrees.

“While it may be hard for young children to understand macro-level systemic issues like racism, tailor the message into something digestible with language they understand, for example, ‘Some people are mean to others because of the color of their skin, which isn’t kind,’” she suggests.

Francis provides specifics for talking to children in each age group. For those in elementary school, she recommends providing examples that relate to their own lives, using experiences they may have had themselves.

“By grade school, many children start to notice injustices and have likely witnessed someone being treated unfairly,” she says. “Use those instances to help them understand the events happening in the world around them.”

As children enter their teenage years, you can do less filtering of conversations and speak at a more peer level, Francis adds. “Ask them how they would react in those situations and help them consider their options,” she says. “You can be more candid in your sharing of experiences with older children, as they will be better able to form their own opinions, but will benefit from hearing more nuances and diverse perspectives on the issue.”

Lastly, if you are initiating this conversation to prepare them for an experience they might have themselves, be sure to enter the conversation prepared with resources for where they can turn for support when in crisis, according to Francis. This includes giving them the tools and strategies they might need to navigate the world safely.

Don’t ignore what’s happening

Although you may think you are protecting your child, not talking about what is currently going on can make it worse.

“Usually, what a child imagines — particularly with nuclear war or war in general — can be a lot scarier than the truth,” Sabla explains. “They tend to imagine worst-case scenarios. Talking about it can help alleviate their fears.”

Julie Barthels, a licensed clinical social worker in Illinois and coauthor of Resilience Revolution: A Workbook for Staying Sane in an Insane World to be published in November, suggests letting your kids take the lead in conversations. “Answer their questions honestly, but don’t over-provide information,” she adds. “Brief interactions will allow children to process their thoughts before coming back for more.” 

Specifically regarding race, parents must first deal with their own feelings regarding the issue, according to Dr. Eboni Hollier, a pediatrician practicing in Houston. Children learn about race from an early age primarily from their parents, she explains, though later in life, they learn from the world around them, including from school and extracurricular activities.

Some strategies Hollier recommends to help your children deal with racial bias include talking with them about racial differences, encouraging them to be kind and empathetic when interacting with people of all races and ethnic groups, being a role model for them by being kind and respectful of others and having a diverse group of friends.

Monitor their media intake

The 24-hour news cycle means that disturbing scenes — everything from children being held in cages to the president’s former campaign manager making fun of a child with Down syndrome — are shown on repeat. Try to limit your child’s exposure to the news coverage, suggests Keisha Blair, cofounder of Aspire-Canada, who has developed policies for clinical social workers and worked with traumatized kids in the social welfare system.

Make sure they know they’re safe

Sometimes, if children don’t understand what they see on the news, they might think they are personally in danger.

“Reassure them about their own personal safety,” Blair says. “Let them know there are responsible adults around them that have taken all precautions necessary to ensure their physical safety.”

Check in with them

You don’t necessarily need to mention specific news events when talking to your kids, says Sabla. Rather, you can ask if they have seen or heard anything upsetting to them that they’d like to discuss.

Once you’ve asked them what they’ve heard, listen to their explanation of the event to get an idea of how they are understanding it, Francis says, adding that intercepting misinformation early can be really helpful in developing media literacy, critical thinking and perspective-taking.

Validate their feelings

Once you’ve heard what they think and understand, spend time talking about what the event makes them feel, and validate whatever feelings arise, Francis suggests.

“Children can feel scared, confused, disheartened or shocked by the current affairs, but may not say so without prompting,” she says. “Be with them in their feelings, and share yours. Let them know what they feel is OK and normal.”

Francis recommends ending the conversation by asking what would make them feel a little better or if there is something they would like to do to contribute positively to the causes they are passionate about.

“This last step is empowering and gives children agency to be global citizens that can effect change,” she adds.

Focus on compassion

Barthels suggests using this time to spark your child’s compassion.

“Help them identify a service project,” she explains. “Even a preschooler can go to the grocery store for a food pantry trip and identify what a family might need. Or put out a bird feeder. It’s a great time to be empowered rather than defeated.”

Similarly, Blair recommends highlighting positive outcomes with your kids, like talking about any heroes or how the community came together to support each other even in a difficult time.

“In particular, talk about history and how heroic figures like Martin Luther King were able to inspire a nation to come together against hatred,” Blair advises. “Let them know that these incidents present an opportunity to open up dialogue for improved outcomes.”

Francis suggests relating the events to the values you hope to instill in your children.

“Much news coverage depicts issues of violence on the basis of race, class, gender and nationality,” she explains. “What are the related family values that are implicated in the event in question? If your family encourages integrity and standing up for what is right, when the news involves a protest, bring that up. If your family believes in peace and nonviolence, when there are violent tragedies in the news, express your disappointment and disapproval of violent behavior.”

Other examples of these values include honesty, accountability, respect and acceptance, Francis notes, suggesting that parents address both where they believe the values on the events they saw on TV were misaligned and acknowledge the values they are trying to promote.

Manage your own stress

Make sure you deal with your stresses in a healthy way, says Barthels. “You are a role model for your children," she adds. "If they see that you can experience tough emotions but still be OK, it will encourage them to do the same.”

Along the same lines, Blair suggests that parents modulate their own behavior because children will take social cues from significant adults in their lives.

Counselors & therapists are an option

If your children really seem overwhelmed or anxious and talking with you does not alleviate those fears, you may want to consider having them check in with a school counselor or therapist who specializes in working with children, Sabla adds.

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