How to Talk to Young Children About What’s Happening to Families at the Border

I’m an early childhood psychologist (and mother of young kids), so it’s no surprise that, over the past week, I’ve been asked on numerous occasions whether and how to tell young children about what has been happening at our borders, most notably, the separation of children and families. This feeling has become all too familiar of late – something tragic happens, and, as the grown-ups, we have to figure out the best ways to communicate the information to our little ones – or if that’s even something we want to do. I’ve been helping my clients and friends navigate this incredibly difficult terrain, and I want to help you, too. Here are some things to consider when deciding whether and how to talk to your young kids about what’s going on.

To talk about it or not to talk about it?

That is the question. Or, at least, the first one. How do you decide? Here are some factors to consider:

  • Your child’s age and stage of development. Chances are any child under the age of three does not need an explanation of what’s going on, unless your family is somehow directly affected. Babies and toddlers don’t have language to understand the most basic of situations and feelings, let alone something this confusing and complicated.
  • Your child’s temperament. Is your child naturally on the anxious side? Is she still asking you about the time you drove by a car accident on the highway, whether everyone was OK? Does he worry about the ant you accidentally crushed on your last picnic? Does he have difficulty “turning off his brain” when it’s time to go to sleep? If this is your child, then you may think twice about whether he needs to, or would benefit in any way from, being included in conversations about these current events.
  • Your own level of involvement. Are you a lot more distracted than usual? Are you working more than usual, given the time you’re putting into staying on top of the news and taking various actions? Are you planning to attend one of the upcoming rallies, protests, or marches? If these issues are impacting you in any of these ways, then chances are they are also impacting your children, if not emotionally then certainly on a more concrete, day-to-day level. If you don’t provide some kind of explanation to your child about these changes, her confusion – or sense of an “elephant in the room” – may lead to feelings of anxiety.
  • Your child is asking you questions. Maybe your child overheard something at preschool. Or saw something on TV at the diner. For whatever reason, she seems to know that something is going on with children and families that is not right, or “bad.” In these cases, you need to be prepared to have answers, because avoidance or distraction – “Hey, look over there! Something shiny! – is not only often ineffective, but can also serve to create or heighten anxiety.
  • Your child’s sleep, appetite, and behavior. Is your child behaving any differently than usual? More clingy? Stronger emotional reactions? More difficulty falling asleep? Decreased appetite? These are all ways that children “communicate” that they may be worried about something. It’s possible your child knows bits and pieces of what’s going on already, but hasn’t brought up the subject explicitly, for lack of language or understanding, or even a sense that he or she “shouldn’t.” In these cases, it’s your responsibility, as the grown-up, to begin the conversation.
  • Your family’s values and beliefs. Where does this issue fit into what you believe as a family, and the values you want to pass on to your children? If it ranks high, you may consider talking to your child about it in some way, even if doing so feels difficult or uncomfortable.

If you decide not to talk about it

Then don’t talk about it. Sounds simple right? Except it’s not always that easy. Your partner makes an offhand comment that your child overhears. Your neighbor stops by and says something. You keep the radio or TV on a bit longer than intended, and suddenly there’s a news story front and center. If you have decided that you are not going to bring your children into a conversation about these issues, then don’t. Because a “halfway” or “sort of” conversation can do way more damage than one you begin thoughtfully and with intention.

 If you decide to talk about it

Then I recommend following these three rules of thumb, which are my go-to’s when speaking with young children about any difficult topic.

  • Be honest
    • Let children know that there are children who need our help right now, because they are not with their own mommies and daddies. You are distracted/busy/going to a march because you think it’s really important to help these kids and to get them back to their mommies and daddies. If your children ask why they are not with their parents, you do not need to go into technical (or gruesome) detail, but can say something like, “Our country has a lot of rules about who can and can’t come in. Some people are afraid that letting in too many grown-ups won’t be safe. We believe that the safest thing for everyone is to keep families together.” No need to speak too much, though by all means answer your child’s questions directly.
  • Be developmentally appropriate
    • A lot of times young children are egocentric, meaning they care about issues only as they pertain to them. In this case, it might be helpful to say something like, “You might find it harder than usual to get my attention,” or “Daddy and I have been kind of sad recently, and that’s why,” or “I feel frustrated that I can’t help more which is why I haven’t had so much patience recently.” Do not talk about how devastatingly awful the whole thing is, and how you feel so helpless and hopeless, and how you’ve been eating two pints of ice cream every night because it’s the only thing that feels good.
  • Let your child know there are grown-ups helping.
    • Your child needs to know that he or she is not responsible for these children, or for fixing this situation, and that the grown-ups are on top of it. Tell your child that there are really smart, really strong grown-ups who are working to get the kids back with their parents, and to change the law.

Of course, your conversations will vary depending on your child’s age, and it’s impossible to go through every possible permutation or script. That said, these three guidelines – being honest, developmentally appropriate, and emphasizing that grown-ups are figuring it all out – will go a long way. Of course, also make sure to add that this is not going to happen to them. The situation at the border involves a fear that many of our own children feel, or have felt, themselves, even if not explicitly or acutely, which is why there’s a name for it: separation anxiety. The idea that one’s parent may leave and not come back is not an unfamiliar thought for many kids, and it’s a terrifying one. It’s also exactly what’s happening here. You may need to spell out in simple and clear terms that you and your children are not going to be separated, that the law only applies to those who are coming into our country for the first time: “I’m not going anywhere, Honey. You and I are going to be together for a long, long, long time.”

Finally, no matter what path you take:

Self-regulate, self-regulate, self-regulate

Over the past week, we have been inundated with painful images of little ones being ripped from their parents’ arms, audio recordings of their cries, stories of their pain and anguish. Numerous articles, blog posts, and status updates have been written about the impact of this kind of trauma on individuals, families, and communities; the effects of “toxic stress” on the developing brain are well known, and the long-term emotional, psychological, and physiological damage well documented. Most parents I know, myself included, have spent the week vacillating between rage and heartbreak. 

All of this takes an incredible toll. As a parent, you may be experiencing vicarious trauma – intrusive thoughts, exhaustion, dissociation, and hypervigilance may all be indications that this is the case. You may feel distracted, overwhelmed, consumed with notions that you should be doing more, donating more, helping more.

Take a break. Look away. Stop reading. No more social media for a bit. Ground yourself in your body. Take deep breaths. Pay attention to your senses. You are only of use to your own children in so far as you are aware of, and regulating, your own emotional reactions.

And remember, the whole reason you get to even ask these questions, and read this article, is because this isn’t happening to you and your family. So while the rage and heartbreak are real, so is the deep, deep gratitude. Gratitude that we remain close to our little ones, that they are safe in our homes rather than in cages, that when they yell out “Mommy” or “Daddy” in the middle of the night it is merely because their sheets got tangled, or their favorite stuffed animal has gone missing. Gratitude that we are there, we can fix it, they can fall peacefully back to sleep, so can we.

Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and founder of Little House Calls, which specializes in helping kids and parents confronting a range of common early childhood challenges. She is the author of The Tantrum Survival Guide: Tune In to Your Toddler's Mind (and Your Own) to Calm the Craziness and Make Family Fun Again, coming out from Guilford Press in October and available for pre-order now. She lives in the New York City area with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on instagram and facebook for more.

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