Talking to Kids About Children Being Separated from Their Families and Communities

Talking to Kids About Children Being Separated from Their Families and Communities

sad teddy bear because families have been separated at the border

Over the past couple weeks, thousands of infants, toddlers, and teens have been separated from their parents at the U.S./Mexico border. Although these events may be heartbreaking to those who care about children’s welfare, those who are most vulnerable, of course, are the children themselves. And beyond the kids who are currently being held in detention centers, children all over the country have been exposed to news coverage and discussions that may have them feeling anxious, scared, and confused, wondering if they might be the next to not know when they’ll see their loved ones again.

“When kids hear about or see other kids who look like themselves or their classmates in dangerous situations—be it in the aftermath of a natural disaster, a school shooting, or events like those taking place at the border right now—it’s natural for them to wonder if they or their friends might suffer the same fate,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald. “As parents and caregivers, our role is to help children navigate this frightening time with honest, age-appropriate information, even if we’re still trying to make sense of things ourselves.”

Although you might think these issues are too grown-up to discuss with your girl or that she’s unaware of what’s happening, it’s unrealistic to think you can shield her from these events entirely. Even if you keep the news off when your daughter is around, she’s likely reading about these issues on social media, overhearing opinions about the situation in adult conversations, and even discussing it with her friends at school.

“When kids only have a small part of the story or have heard rumors from a potentially unreliable source, their minds tend to jump to the most terrifying conclusions,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. Here’s how you can step in to support your girl.

1.    Let Her Lead
If your daughter brings up the issue of family separation or asks about the kids being held in detention centers, listen seriously to what she’s asking you and do your best to give her limited but fact-based answers to her questions while staying as calm as possible. Remember, your daughter is learning a lot about how to react to the world from you—so if you stay calm and collected, she’s more likely to as well.

2.    Reassure Her, If Possible
She might be scared that something similar could happen to herself, friends, or your family members. Depending on your family situation, you may not be able to promise that she won’t be separated from her loved ones—or that a friend or other community member won’t be affected—but even if that’s the case, make sure to tell her you love her and will always do everything in your power to keep her out of harm’s way. Remind her of the many other caring adults in her life—in her family, place of worship, or community—who are also there to support her. Simply keeping her on her regular, consistent schedule and spending a little more time with her, if possible, can make a big difference in her sense of security.

Remember to check in a few days after your initial conversation to ask how she’s feeling and if her friends and classmates have discussed the topic among themselves. There’s no need to bring it up every day, but you don’t want her worrying all on her own or struggling with potential misinformation, either.

Some children, especially those from immigrant or mixed-status families, may feel more anxiety about this issue than others. A change in eating habits, stomach pain or vomiting, an inability to sleep, and any sudden change in behavior or mood are all signs that a child may be suffering from extreme stress. If your daughter is experiencing any of these symptoms, reach out to a trusted health professional or a community leader who knows your family. They may be able to help you find resources to support your girl.                                                   

3.    Keep It Simple
The politics and legal arguments surrounding these separations may be difficult for her to grasp, so keep it simple and focus on the kids and their families instead. Answer her questions in basic terms, and avoid sharing speculations about the situation or jumping to conclusions about what might happen next—she may take your word as fact, and that could actually make her anxiety worse. Just remember: you don’t have to have all of the answers, and it’s OK to say so. 

4.    Face Stereotypes Head On
As much as we’d like to live in a world where all children and adults are respected equally, we know that people still irrationally distrust or make unfair judgments about people who are different from themselves. Remind your kids that when they hear people saying hateful things about a person or group of people based on the color of their skin, their country of origin, or the languages they speak, it’s wrong.

“Explain to your child that sometimes, instead of taking the time to get to know or understand a person or a group, some people will make assumptions about them instead,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. Discuss ways your girl can fight stereotypes, like sticking up for kids who might be unfairly judged and refusing to join in on any hurtful jokes or rumors.

“If your girl is the one being bullied or targeted based on her family background, the way she looks, or the language she speaks, she needs to know she can and should come to you,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “This isn’t even necessarily about disciplinary action—although it may need to be, depending on the situation—but more about finding ways to help your daughter feel safe while educating and opening the minds of other children.”

Reach out to other parents and community members (of all backgrounds—you might be surprised by who wants to be an ally) to form a network of support, and start thinking of activities and other ways your child’s group and larger community can be structured to foster inclusion and a sense of belonging for all.

5.    Spread Kindness
Remind her that enjoying our lives and being kind to others actually helps balance out the bad stuff in the world and that turning to violence or fueling stereotypes just adds to the problem. Team up to think of something you can do together to spread kindness and understanding. Maybe you can get books from the library that can help you better understand other people’s cultures or donate some of her old books and toys to children in need. Taking action in your community won’t just make her feel more in control, it could serve as an outlet for any stress and anxiety she’s been feeling.

On June 19, 2018, Girl Scouts of the USA joined other members of Leadership 18, a coalition of CEOs from some of the nation’s largest and most influential human service nonprofits, to call on the Trump administration to halt “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Read more about the  from the coalition.