If you have an ounce of empathy in your body, then you can feel like you’ve been hit by a truck when learning more about families being separated at the border. Parents are particularly vulnerable to secondary trauma when deeply considering the ramifications of a child being ripped from their parent’s arms. We look at our children, imagining what would that be like? How could it be that this is happening? What can I do? Why isn’t anyone stopping this? Where are the “all lives matter” people now?
And yet we have to keep raising these kids right in front of us. They still need us, and though we are likely protecting their innocent ears from exactly what’s going on, they are perceptive. They know SOMETHING isn’t right. They feel our tortured sense of helplessness. When we are in a time of elevated stress, they feel unsettled too. And we are likely to be more irritable, have less patience, and be less present with them. When we are less present, we have less of a capacity to see things from their perspective, losing sight of what could be an important moment of connection.
I am a mother of four sons, a social worker, and therapist in private practice. The Trump era has brought on a blanket of terror that hovers over the lives of parents who come into my office. They want desperately to feel hopeful; they are trying with every ounce of energy to set aside their fears when they come home to care for their own children. Adults who have endured their own trauma, either during childhood or later, are especially triggered by recent events and find it that much harder to function, needing reminders of basic parenting and coping strategies as their emotional exhaustion takes up too much brain power. I feel the weight of their hurt, like an echoing boom that carries from every parent who has ever had a crying child they needed to comfort. They want to raise change makers-- for their children to grow into compassionate adults who will never stand for the human rights violations we are witnessing right now. As I am challenged to attend to their intense feelings of responsibility and helplessness simultaneously, I feel my obligation to share some of the things that sustain me through this emotional storm- in hopes that it may help you gain some breathing room for the next meaningful moment that may arise from a painful headline or personal challenge that strikes your moral chord. Most parents I work with want to raise positive change makers AND want to make the most of their parenting experience. Here are some intentional seeds to plant as you likely have the same goals in mind.
-Be clear about your principles. Show them what they are in everyday life through your actions and choices you make- even how you connect with people in brief exchanges (at the grocery store, in traffic, neighbors, etc.). Our children start building their moral compasses very early on. Do not miss opportunities to help them build it. Community service is great to do, but if that’s the only time that your kids see real diversity, then you need to expand your social circle and think about how you can shift your time and priorities to align with your parenting goals. Several parents I know are reexamining their careers and making big shifts to join the movement of inspired people who are refusing to stand for the injustices that are keeping them awake at night.
-Have confidence in who your children are intrinsically, avoiding conditional praise and attention. Make sure they know you love them no matter what. Make sure they know that you understand mistakes are expected and important for development. Show them that you see the best in them, genuinely enjoy their company, and explicitly express your trust in their ability to navigate challenges. Find real life examples of their friends and kids in books and TV shows who are being mistreated and deserve more value than they are given, who may be misunderstood or judged. Talk about what they deserve in the context of basic human rights that WE ALL deserve, and what could be done differently in those instances. There are lots of examples to draw from in movies and television shows! These day to day moments weave together to create a foundation that will help you feel confident in them as they grow older and have to navigate pressures and more complex social dilemmas. I speak as a proud mom of a young Black man who is going off to college this summer- who has a strong sense of self, is clearly considerate of others, and motivated to take a creative, fresh approach to improving the world around him. He gives me hope, which in turn allows me to help other parents in finding hope (and cultivating it) in their children.
-Give your children time to express their feelings without rushing to make them feel better when they experience personal disappointment, anger, and sadness. Feelings are not threatening. They are important and healthy. This means spend some time with your own feelings and practice self-compassion so that you are believable and able to genuinely connect with compassion when your kids are hurting. Read them books about emotional intelligence- not just because they need to be able to better understand their own emotions, but also to enable them to be better friends, siblings, and global citizens who care about others.
- Model self-care and slow down when you need to. Practice gratitude. Take walks. Feel the ground under your feet. Breathe in the aroma of your environment. Measure your intake of social media and the news. We need to have regular mindfulness practices to carry ourselves through this very heavy time. Read Brene Brown, Sharon Salzberg, and other authors who nurture the spirit and the disheartened soul. Some parents I’ve introduced to guided meditation have started practicing with their kids. It is a beautiful thing to watch when a parent naturally shifts their way of coping with stress in such a meaningful way as to model it for their children and then practice with them. These are powerful, meaningful moments of peace and love- filled with the power of just being together. In this space, we can humbly honor the families who have been victimized, traumatized, and dehumanized while not taking our lives and families for granted. Then with a clear mind and a full heart, we can contribute to the shift that we know is so necessary in our own important way.
None of this is easy. But we have to be able to recharge for our own sanity and give our children the encouragement and hope that they need in order to facilitate lasting change that prioritizes equality and basic human rights.
Emily Griffin is a psychotherapist who works with parents and families in Washington, DC. Reach out to her: firstname.lastname@example.org www.happyparentshappybabies.com www.facebook.com/HappyParentsHappyBabies
Emily Griffin is a psychotherapist who works with parents and families in Washington, DC. www.happyparentshappybabies.com