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Why your child might be affected by the immigration crisis

Here's how to help kids process what they have seen and heard the past few weeks.
/ Source: TODAY

Even if your children live far from America's southern borders, they might feel the effects of trauma and anxiety from the events there over the past few months, child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa told TODAY Parents.

News and social media have been dominated by stories and images showing parents and children being physically separated as a result of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy on individuals who cross the U.S. border seeking asylum.

A boy and father from Honduras are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico Border on June 12, 2018 near Mission, Texas. The asylum seekers were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. John Moore / Getty Images

Over 2,300 children were separated from their parents over the past few months and placed in shelters while their parents are detained, the Trump administration has reported. Though President Trump signed an executive order reversing the policy this week, officials told NBC News that the families may not be immediately reunited.

Gilboa said that American children — regardless of their families' location or political affiliation — could experience trauma of their own from witnessing the immigrant children separated from their parents. For some, the fear may be because they have an undocumented parent or one with a temporary protected status or work visa. For others, it might not have personal relevance, but Gilboa said it could affect them nonetheless.

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"Even if you're not sure what immigrant policy ought to be, to protect your own kids, you have to care about this issue," said Gilboa. "When we look back at kids who were geographically close to the Japanese internment camps and families that were close to camps in the Holocaust, there is some community trauma."

What is different about events in 2018, Gilboa noted, is that we now have the internet and television bringing news events from anywhere into our homes and our hands. "So now, there is nobody who isn't exposed to the trauma; there's nobody whose community it doesn't touch," she said.

Gilboa said that for parents with children under the age of 8, it's not necessary to talk about the current crisis involving children at the U.S. border if they choose not to.

"But if your family's involved, if you are touched at all, if you decide to volunteer, they're going to hear about it, and they might hear about it at school or from other kids," she said. "They could have teachers, camp counselors, or coaches who will be affected."

Gilboa urged parents to be prepared to answer questions from their children. Though these suggestions do not address or solve the fears of those citizen children whose parents might actually face immigration insecurity under the government's policies, they can help mitigate community trauma.

Her suggestions:

Keep it simple

Gilboa said the simple, age-appropriate answer to questions about why immigrant children were separated from their parents at the border is to say, "These are kids whose parents have been accused of breaking the law, so they have to go be in jail for now. Their kids can't be with them, so their kids are in a different place, and they are scared."

"I don't care where you fall on the issue, that's just true," said Gilboa.

Realize kids might fear it will happen to them

If you're going to explain to your kids what is going on at the border, there is an important distinction you need to make to them, Gilboa said. "You have to explain that these are kids who are removed from their parents — not because their parents weren't good parents, and not because the kids were bad kids," she said.

"Kids up to about age 12 are so self-cenrtric that they can't think about something happening to a parent," she explained. "They only think of it in terms of happening to a kid. Kids who are hearing about this will assume that the kids must have been 'bad' kids, and it's very difficult to break through that belief."

Unfortunately,children are also quick to make the connection that if other kids can have their parents removed from them, then so can they, Gilboa explained.

"That fear that you can be ripped from your safety and security is trauma," she said. "So when we are thinking about our kids existing in a time period where that is something that is happening, it is really damaging."

Reinforce boundaries between fiction and real life

The safety of our children is one of the core values we have as a society, said Gilboa, but when children see their peers feeling unsafe, we blur the lines between stories and reality for them.

When our children watch scary movies or read or play dystopian books or video games, "We say, 'That's not us. That's fiction. Fiction isn't real," said Gilboa. "But some of the images and stories they are hearing about what is happening at our borders is moving toward fiction for our children. They lose their clear boundaries between fiction and what can happen to them when they see these images."

Pull a 'Mister Rogers'

How do we help our children process what they hear and see? "Pull a Mister Rogers," said Gilboa. "Look for the helpers. Give your kids the chance to be the helpers." Gilboa suggested making banners or writing letters with children, or helping them find items in their bedrooms or money from their piggy banks (or yours) to donate to shelters. Giving children concrete ways to help "builds kids up," said Gilboa.