How to Talk to Kids about the Family Separation Crisis


How to Talk to Kids about the Family Separation Crisis

Written By John Brodie
Illustration Maria Tabet

The other morning I was jogging around the Central Park reservoir with my 13-year-old son Nicholas. We live nearby and its leafy bridle path is always a safe place for honest conversations. There’s something about being in motion—a car trip, a stroller ride or a walk—that makes it easier for kids to share their concerns and secrets.

“What happens to the children who are separated from their parents at the border? How will they find each other?” he asked, referring to the more than 2,300 children forcibly separated from their families by Homeland Security Department officials and sent to mass detention centers, military bases or foster homes around the country. I paused for a moment to collect my thoughts.

“You know it’s bad when four former first ladies and Bruce Springsteen call out the border policy,” I replied. I was stalling because sometimes a question from a child is really a question about something else—a hidden fear or anxiety. I knew our eight-year-old daughter would also be asking questions soon, and because she is younger and more tender than her brother, I needed help. To get some guidance on this crucial conversation, I reached out to Maisonette’s ace child psychologist, Dr. Bronwyn Charlton. Here's her advice for navigating this conversation with children five and older.

1. Encourage your child to talk about things she’s seen or heard.

Find out what your child knows. You could say, “You may have heard about something happening at the border with immigrants and their children. I want to know what you heard. Let's talk about it.”

2. Acknowledge your child’s fears.

Even if you or your family are not directly impacted by the current policy, the fear your child might feel is very real. Reassure her that her personal world is safe.

3. Keep it age appropriate.

You may have read an insightful article in The New Yorker about the challenges of reuniting families because of the disconnect between law-enforcement agencies and the Office of Refugee Resettlement; however, that’s way too much detail for a child. It’s good for parents to do research and be prepared with age-appropriate talking points, especially if your child can read or if there is a possibility that she might overhear conversations between older siblings.

4. If your child is going to watch the news, watch it with her.

During intense news cycles, you should know what your child is being exposed to so you can talk about it together. If you see something that may be upsetting to your child, like images of children in cages or covered in foil blankets, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation about it.

5. Emphasize the good in the world.

Emphasize that there are some people who make bad decisions but there are many more people who make good ones. Look for articles about people who are helping and talk about them with her. Make a list with her of all the good people she knows. Brainstorm age-appropriate activities to help detained children, such as making a lemonade stand to raise money for a relevant organization, attending a protest or calling elected officials to voice her concerns.

Finally, remember that with any tragic news event it is important to let children steer the conversation with their questions. Make sure she knows that she can come to you anytime to talk about anything she sees or hears.

Bronwyn Becker Charlton, Ph.D. received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University and is currently on the faculty at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the Department of Pediatrics. She is also the co-founder of the seedlingsgroup.