How to talk to your children about the immigration crisis
By Leah Persky • Family Life Education Program Coordinator
Leah Persky was recently hired as the JFCS Family Life Education Program Coordinator. Family Life Education (FLE) takes JFCS out into the community and brings the community into JFCS through presentations, trainings, workshops, classes, support groups, individual meetings and consultations. Customized programming includes topics such as parenting, teacher trainings, interfaith challenges, bullying, grief and loss, supporting caregivers, and building healthy relationships. Leah has more than 10 years of experience teaching and conducting research on issues of gender, health, politics and social issues. She completed her Ph.D. in political science with a focus on gender, health and policymaking.
As I got into my car recently the radio came on, the sounds of children crying and screaming filled my ears. These were the recordings of young children being separated from their parents near our southern border with Mexico. When would their families be back together again? I am not sure anyone knows the answer to this question. Luckily, my children were not with me to ask about these heartbreaking sounds. I thought to myself, what would I tell them if they were?
Even though the president signed an executive order to officially end the separation of families in detention facilities, immigration remains a pressing matter. The new executive order outlines that whole families entering the country will now be placed in detention together. The stories of families fleeing violence, severe poverty and instability are hard to avoid. There is also no durable and humane political solution on the horizon.
Many people have questions about what is happening at the U.S. border: How do I talk to my children about immigration and the U.S. Justice Department’s recent actions? Should I talk to my children about these events? The answer to the latter question is yes – you should talk about these events with your children if they are 8 or older and have questions. If your children don’t feel you are open to discussing issues or provide factual information, they will be more likely to turn to other sources for information in the future.
The following information can serve as a guide as your family navigates these issues. There is no one-size-fits-all model and any discussion needs to be age-appropriate and support one of the foundational needs of children: to feel safe and loved.
What is age-appropriate?
In any discussion around immigration and refugees, parents must highlight that they are there to support the child and that the child is safe. If children are exposed to information about these events, parents should answer their questions in a limited, direct, and age-appropriate way. It can be very hard for younger children to process powerful images and information. There is no need to bring up troubling events such as this with children 8 and under, according to Common Sense Media. It is also best to limit the exposure to media – perhaps creating a media-use plan for the family. For all ages, a useful way to begin the conversation is what do you know or have you heard?
In general, elementary kids have a hard time understanding abstract issues, terms and laws they may hear about.
- Avoid graphic details and abstract concepts. If your child does not need or want to talk about these issues, there is no need to force the discussion on young children.
- Focus on the reasons why people end up moving from one country to another. This may involve a discussion of poverty and how this impacts the lives of children and families.
- Using a map or globe is also a great way to demonstrate the geography of these events and help your child understand their location in reference to these events.
Middle-school kids are able to delve into complex and abstract issues, but will still need help understanding the why and how of these events.
- Middle-schoolers can and should be engaged with reading current events with the support of their family members and teachers. Content should be pre-screened and filtered by parents. Shield children from any graphic images or content.
- Be prepared to support whatever emotions come up during this discussion.
- Middle-schoolers do have a sense of history and have knowledge of some historical events. Putting the recent events in context with past events and other times of migration may be helpful. Here you can also make connections between events happening in your community, across the nation, and the globe.
- Avoid graphic details.
High-schoolers can grasp the abstract policies and concepts related to immigration, including the political debate around it.
- Depending on the interest and maturity of your high-schooler, they can be given more independence to research the topic on their own and from different viewpoints.
- Parents and guardians can and should work with their children to sift through and understand the topic, and guide the discussion by asking questions about the source of information, bias in the reporting, their own views and thoughts on the matter.
- Teenagers often have a stronger emotional reaction to events. They may become overly-focused on graphic details of these and other powerful events. This is one way of dealing with their feelings. Be there to reassure them, discuss, and answer any questions.
- If you are worried that your child is overly fixated on these or other troubling current events, contact you pediatrician or mental health professional.
Ideas about what you can do in your family:
Talk about your own family’s story
According to William Perez, author of Americans By Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education, a great way to start a conversation about immigration is by discussing how most people who live in the U.S. today come from families that came from somewhere else. Looking at your own family’s history of migration and the countries your family has lived in can help spur a discussion around why people move. This discussion can expand to include information about the role of Ellis Island in U.S. history and include more recent patterns of migration depending on the interest and age of the child. Older elementary and middle-school students can begin to make connections between their own family history, current events, and what is going on in their own community. Taking out a globe or map is another way to make this an interactive discussion. Click here to read an interview with Perez.
Reading and learning together
Sometimes storytelling is the most powerful way to communicate with children. When we learn about the experience of others, this can be a powerful way to spur discussion and understanding. Read together and take time to listen and share in a safe-space afterwards. Check out this list of books for all ages.
Make a plan to make a difference
Children are by nature empathetic. Once hearing about the suffering of migrant families, they might want to do something or get involved. Here are some action-oriented ideas that may be appealing to your family and can be tailored to the age to young children through teens:
- Let your voices be heard! Write letters to your elected officials together. Here is information about finding contact information for your elected leaders, including the president: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials
- Volunteer together to support relevant causes. This will create a sense of ownership and empowerment for children and underscores the Jewish tradition of giving and social justice, or tzedakah.
- Brainstorm ideas about how to get involved together. Be creative and see where the discussion takes you.
Let the needs and interests of your children guide you as you navigate this topic together. You as the parent have the ability to inform your children about your values and worldview, and to create a safe space for open and honest discussions. Fear may come up in these discussions – underscore the safety of your children, the love you feel for them and the power we each have to make a positive difference in our community and our world.
If you want further information about how to talk to your children about current events, check out this information from the American Academy of Pediatrics.