There is a lot in the news right now about refugee and immigrant families being separated at the border. Here are six tips for parents who are struggling with how to talk with their children about this:
- LIMIT INPUT
First and foremost, especially with young children, monitor and limit what they see and hear about the families being separated. Wait to watch and discuss the news until after the little ones are in bed. Visual images and pictures, as well as audio of crying children, can be particularly distressing to children (and adults!). Our kids on the spectrum are often much more sensitive and less able to self-regulate their emotions than others their age. Remember that once they see an image that is frightening of heart-breaking, they can’t “un-see” it and forget about it. Do your best to shield them from this issue right now, since there is nothing they can do about it and the stress and trauma from exposure may be long-lasting.
- IF THEY ASK, DON’T COVER IT UP
No matter how hard you try to limit the news in your home, your children may still learn that children have been taken away from their parents. If that happens and they ask you about it, don’t pretend it isn’t happening or refuse to discuss it. It can be frightening for children to feel that something is happening in the world that is so terrible, even grownups are afraid to talk about it. Be understanding if they have nightmares and need extra reassurance after hearing distressing news or seeing disturbing photographs.
- KISS: KEEP IT SHORT & SIMPLE.
When you answer their questions, keep it short and simple. Don’t embellish beyond the questions they ask, and don’t go into graphic detail or describe how the parents or children who are being separated must feel. You might say something like, “Some families who came to America from another country were separated, parents in one place and children in another place. Many people think this is a bad idea. They believe families should stay together when they come to America. Those people are working hard to change things and get the families back together.”
- MODEL CALMNESS
If you can answer their questions calmly, without getting emotional or worked up, you will help them to also be calm and not become overly anxious. They look to you to see if they are in danger, and how they should respond. When you are in control, they can be in control.
- BE AGE APPROPRIATE
With very young children, avoid giving too much information; the less said the better. (Remember the story of the little boy who asked his parents what sex meant. After they gave him a lengthy explanation, he said, “So, am I supposed to check M or F on this form?”) If kids ask questions, they may need to be told simply that they are safe, and that people will help the children who are away from their parents. Older children may need to hear that their lives and routines will stay the same and that this won’t happen to them. If you have preteens and teen-agers, they will probably appreciate being treated like intelligent people whose opinions matter. The older they are, the more you can talk to them as an equal rather than trying to shield them as you would a younger child. Just look to the Parkland shooting survivors to realize how powerful teenagers with strong beliefs can be.
The most important thing you can give your children is reassurance that they are safe, and that your family is safe; this is happening to families in a particular situation and place, but it is not happening everywhere or in your neighborhood. Remind them that people who care are working hard to try to get these families back together. Also, tell them what Mr. Rogers’ mother used to tell him when he was a child and he saw scary things in the news: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”