5 Expert-Approved Tips for Talking to Your Kids About the Families Being Separated at the Border

Photo: Stocksy/Jovo Jovanovic
It’s been nearly impossible to have a conversation this week without mentioning the atrocities that are happening at the United States/Mexico border—where asylum-seeking children are being separated from their parents with no reunification plan in sight. And while adults clearly need to talk candidly about what’s happening—and how we can band together to help—things get a bit more sensitive when little ones are part of the discussion.

So how do you address this horrifying, heartbreaking situation if you’re a parent? According to Tovah Klein, PhD, if your kids are currently oblivious and they’re under the age of 6 or 7, you ideally shouldn’t bring it up. “They count on their parents to filter the world for them, and the less they know, the better,” says Dr. Klein, associate professor of psychology at Barnard College and director of the school’s Center for Toddler Development.

“A young child might be thinking, If I do something bad, is someone going to take me away from you?” —Tovah Klein, PhD, director of Barnard College's Center for Toddler Development

That said, if children overhear the news on TV or the radio—and let’s be honest, they likely will—questions are bound to come up. “A young child might be thinking, If I do something bad, is someone going to take me away from you?” says Dr. Klein. “Older children are thinking more abstractly, so they may want to know, How could so many people let this happen? Or if they have friends from other countries, they may be worrying about those friends’ [safety].”

I asked Klein to share some tips on how to help children understand what’s going on in the world while also ensuring they feel safe—and even empowered to take action.

Well+Good: What does every kid—regardless of age—need to hear if they’re worried about the crisis?

Tovah Klein: Children need a lot of reassurance that they’re okay, that they can’t be taken from their parents, and that there are many people in this country who highly disagree with what’s going on. Whatever you think about immigration is irrelevant—children should be with parents. We need to give them the sense that we are doing things [to help] and the children are being cared for somewhere.

That’s a nice idea—flipping the script to focus on all the positive things people are doing to fix this.

We should always be reminding kids that yes, there are bad things [happening] that we disagree with, but there’s also a lot of good going on. We have the ability to vote and protest, the president has started to change policies, the courts have blocked some of the deportations of immigrants.

If you think your child could handle it, you might also want to participate in, [say], a candlelight vigil in the neighborhood where all these people are coming together to say, We don’t agree with this and we’re going to keep working to make sure these children get back with their parents. I wouldn’t take children under the age of 5 or 6, but seeing that there’s lots of people who really do care and will work to help kids is important.

On that note, do you think parents should be encouraging their children to get involved in the activist effort?

Children feel very empowered when they can help in some way and feel like they’re part of the solution. If there’s a clothing drive, do they want to collect socks for families in shelters? Do they want to have a lemonade stand and raise some money to donate? Older kids can do things like that, too—they can write to elected officials and go to protests.

What about children who are part of an immigrant family themselves?

There were children living in fear every day before this—maybe they have an undocumented family member, or they may be undocumented themselves. Parents need to figure out ways to be truthful with their children while protecting them. [They must] come up with plans to keep them safe, given their unusual situation, but also not overwhelm them with the enormity of the fear.

Is there anything else parents should think about before having these conversations?

All parents should think about moderating their own emotional reactions around children of all ages. This is heartbreaking and enraging, but we owe it to our children to keep their lives normal and find self-care outlets for ourselves, whether that’s exercise, getting together with friends, or venting to a partner. It’s one thing to share that we’re worried, too, but they need us to say: I’m gonna help you while I’m trying to do whatever I can do for this situation.

Another conversation we should be having with our kids: How to cultivate self-love and body positivity in the Instagram age. Prepare yourself to go deep with this 10-minute, mom-friendly guided meditation.

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