It seems as though our entire country has been traumatized by the forcible separation of parents and children at our borders. Mothers and fathers identify with the child’s parents and are overcome by the thought of losing one’s child. Children identify with the child and wonder if this could happen to them. As parents we confront two sets of emotions when we talk to our children about events as traumatic as this one.
Sometimes our own emotions get in the way of recognizing or understanding our children’s emotions. Children are much more aware of what is going on around them than we think they are. Particularly in our media age children are exposed to many more things than we might wish them to be. When we think they are not aware of something, it is often because we would like them not to be – because of our own feeling that it is too difficult, or too painful. We want to spare our children the pain we ourselves are feeling and may think the way to do that is to avoid talking about it.
In this instance, children may experience anxiety at the thought that they, too, might be separated from their parents. As parents, we deal with the additional knowledge of the impact on children who experience this trauma. A mother of three children who has at times cared for foster children, told me of her recent experience caring for a two-year- old who had been separated from her mother.
This child would not let the foster mother approach her, change her diaper or remove her clothes. She screamed and resisted any attempt to get close to her. I asked the mother how she was able to deal with this and she said it was not she but her older children who were successful. They were able to gain the child’s trust and after a few days were able to include the mother in that trust.
This reminded me of the many times I have observed two-year-old’s in nursery groups protesting separation from a parent. A child may become unapproachable by a teacher, refuse to remove a coat or be comforted by the warmest, friendliest teacher. At other times, a child may stop crying and withdraw into unemotional isolation, the lack of protest even of greater concern.
At times we may fear that in the outpouring of publicity our own children’s emotional well-being will be damaged in some way. These worries interfere with our ability to talk to children not only about real things, but more importantly about their feelings and our own. As with many emotional topics, the level of our conversation is determined by the developmental level of the child.
Young children are dealing with feelings about separation in their own lives as they enter school or being entrusted at times to the care of others. They often experience mixed feelings, on one hand wishing for independence, on the other anxious about the loss of dependence if the parent leaves. We may feel able to offer reassurance that current events do not apply to them. However, the feelings engendered by these events do apply to them in smaller measure.
Older children may be more mindful of the political context of much of the public discussion, about which parents may differ. Yet they, too, struggle on another level with the feelings aroused by what is occurring. It is possible to solicit their views while at the same time listening for the feelings that may not be expressed as directly.
It is a child’s ability to bear unpleasant feelings, particularly anxiety, sadness and anger, that will help him better confront many of life’s events. A parent’s willingness to help children recognize their feelings, express them appropriately, and cope with them, is a most important part of achieving such mastery.