Welcoming Communities How to Help Families Feel Safe in an Unsafe World: Suggestions for Parents, Teachers, and Community Leaders

      At a time when numerous immigrant residents of our communities feel unwelcome or under siege by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and in great fear that a family member may be removed from the US or when they struggle with the trauma experienced already during their immigration journey, the crucial question for us as a welcoming community is:

How are we to act as therapists, teachers, neighbors, caregivers, or, above all, as parents of children who feel unsafe, or as leaders responsible for civil or religious communities that look to us for reassurance?

Here are some suggestions for you, your loved ones and all with whom you are connected.

Please note:

Feeling unsafe has now gone beyond immigrants: Attacks on Muslims, threats against Jewish Synagogues, desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and assaults against people from Asia, esp. India, have increased. Children are fearful to go to school or see their parents leave for work.

Most of us including myself who are considered white are not affected by the threat of getting detained during a routine traffic stop or while going to school or to work. We need to learn from the experiences of recent immigrants in our community, who are perhaps here without the proper documents or who may be getting into legal trouble with the immigration authorities because they are seen as alien and “different”. It is crucial for us to hear the experience of “Others” in our communities, whether they are new neighbors or citizens over many generations.            

Let’s also not forget the scandal of “ordinary” incidents of racial aggression and violence that plague so many people in poor neighborhoods in NJ, not far from Princeton. Untold numbers of children, teenagers and their families have to endure this ongoing, sometime deadly violence because of their culture, their religion, their gender or sexual identity, or their status as immigrants.

I apologize to recent immigrants and people who are “Others” to me for taking the liberty of making suggestions how to be safe without having myself been in the same situation.

Suggestions for parents, teachers, therapists, nurses, community leaders:

Guideline # 1: You are the most important resource for your children, the students in your classroom, people in your particular neighborhood, and your civic or religious community.

It is, therefore, crucial that you first take good care of yourself. (Remember the airline instruction in a case of emergency to first take the oxygen mask for yourself before you help someone next to you.)

Be mindful of your own reactions, your own vulnerability, your own worries, your own sense of threat coming from your empathic connection to the children, youth, and adults with whom you are in contact, who express to you how frightened, anxious, and panicked they are. As you turn inward and listen to your inner self while you are listening to the people in your care, you may feel vulnerable, but you will also notice in yourself a sense of defiance and protest. The roots of your inner strength and resilience become activated as you empathically listen to the experience of others.

 Guideline # 2: Activate and intensify your own personal network.

Ask yourself who is a source of strength in my life? Looking around you see: your partner or spouse, adult family members, friends, other teachers, neighbors or colleagues at work, people from the community at large with whom you are close, people in your church, synagogue, mosque or temple, people from your own ethnic background with whom you feel like part of an extended family, or the parents of your children’s friends.

As you contemplate the sources of strength around you, you will make two striking discoveries.

One has to do with the relational intensity of your ties to your own cultural, ethnic, or racial identity. In times of crisis and threat to our well-being and identity we almost instinctively reach out to people around us who belong to the cultural, ethnic, or religious group in which we grew up, whose language, gestures, values, songs, interactional style, and food feel familiar, feel “home”.

The other seemingly paradoxical discovery is how much strength originates from your taking responsibility for your children or your students and from the fact that people look to you for guidance and leadership. When others rely on your professional expertise or your volunteer support in coping with the threats against their communities or while preparing for the dreaded moment of the ICE agents taking away a loved one or for healing from the trauma of extra-ordinary violence that they have experienced on their journey here – paradoxically, the relationship of trust and empathy between them and you activates your strengths.

Guideline # 3: Do some things that contribute to your and your community’s sense of safety.

Get organized. Non-violent initiatives for greater safety in schools, community centers, and places of worship should be the first steps. Parents, teachers, congregants, all of us in public paying attention to what is going on around us can make a difference.

Meetings with other parents, teachers, community leaders, clergy, police; participation in civic and religious activities intended to connect those who are being under threat with those who have full citizen rights and can, therefore, more easily speak up will provide greater safety.

Invite someone from a different ethnic or social background to dinner, open your house. In the current climate, it seems as if many are too eager to “demonize” groups of people, whether these are people with psychological problems or foreigners from cultures strange to us or adherents of other religions (“radical Islamists”).

 Guideline # 4: Filter the amount of daily TV news coverage to which you (and your kids) are exposed. These days, we end up being vastly overloaded and have no time or energy left to work through our own experiences and reactions. Many people become even more sleep deprived and lose whatever inner capacity they have to center themselves.    It may be crucial to shut down most media exposure, to read a book, to listen to music, to talk with your partner or a good friend or colleague, to play with your children, or to practice some of the recreational activities you enjoy.

Practical Considerations for those parenting children and teens or being responsible for young people as a teacher, counselor or minister:

Guideline # 1: Understand the context of your relationship with the children, teens, and young adults: The sense of safety among the young people entrusted to you originates from the relationship they have with you.

Especially when you are yourself a parent from the immigrant community, it is crucial to be authentic, to not deny your own worries and nightmares, to acknowledge your struggle to stay grounded in the face of a real threat of removal of yourself or a loved one from your family. Even young children can sense whether you are genuine or making something up or hiding your true feelings from them. Whether you’re speaking from the heart or just trying to reassure them will come through to them, particularly in a classroom setting or in a religious context.

 Guideline # 2: To restore a sense of safety among young people it is important that you’re a person speaking with authority.

As parent, teacher, therapist, police officer, or community leader – your active involvement and commitment to the relationship with young people will signal trustworthiness. That process creates authority (which is different from power).

Commitment translates into engaging actively. Listening, focusing on what is said to you, answering questions in a straightforward way, conveying your genuine curiosity about your child’s or your students’ experience (and that of their families and peers), tolerating diversity of viewpoints and ambiguity inherent in most human endeavors are some of the crucial relational activities.

Guideline # 3: Pay close attention to the developmental phase of the children, teenagers, young adults in your family, your classroom, your social skills group, or any other social context.

For small children, this may mean to carefully screen and limit their exposure to newscasts or TV in general; instead you can give extra attention and time to more playing or reading together or listening to music. As a parent, you may want to find out whether your child heard that someone’s family member or parent got detained or shipped back to the country they came from. As a teacher, you can inquire how much your students understood, overheard family members’ conversations, and who among them in your class is aware of any incident that split a family, removed the provider, or led to ICE detention.

With older children and pre-teens your sensitivity will have to guide you in terms of finding a balance between answering mainly factually oriented questions and your curiosity about what all this emotionally means to them. Although younger kids often do not volunteer much about the emotional impact of the threat that someone in their family may be forcibly removed, they often are affected by what they hear or see when adults talk. Your tactful questions can greatly help to bring out what they experience and will prevent self-destructive actions out of panic.

Teens are at a particularly vulnerable stage in their emotional and cognitive development. Many are more traumatized than we like to assume, as a result of a family under siege, of vicious attacks during their migration, or because of their idiosyncratic absorption of real or perceived threats in the contexts around them. Telltale signs of trouble are a teenager’s social isolation and increasing loneliness and marginalization. Most revealing for a parent, friend, or educator is a thorough look at the young person’s family, school, and peer context. Rather than branding them with stereotypical mental health labels we should carefully listen and ask empathic questions regarding potential fears or nightmares they may have.

Providing, therefore, opportunities at school or at home around the dinner table to reflect within the family on how they feel about experiences of slights or bullying, about people not allowed into the US because of their home country or religion, inquiring about the teenager’s emotional reaction and sense of personal safety, and about whether she or he feels embedded in a caring and supportive network could be important steps toward healing and overcoming fears to return to school. Moreover, many students get quickly engaged in discussions on values and the importance of non-violent protest and resistance activities.

Guideline # 4: Make detailed plans or help others to formulate them:

  • What the kids should do if they return home from school and mother or father are not at the house; to whom (adult) should they go? Be specific!
  • If kids get stopped and interrogated by an ICE officer or even detained, what should they say? How should they behave? Do they have the telephone of parents, relatives, or neighbors you trust? The telephone of a lawyer?

 Only ongoing conversations on the family, school, and community level and corresponding joint actions will help reassure us and through us our children and adolescents that safety is rooted in a sense of belonging to a family and community where people care and are willing to support each other in times of crisis. In all our reflections and actions we should remain mindful of the enormous diversity in our communities and the cultural and religious richness originating from this diversity.

For further assistance and offering your support, please, contact The Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. www.laldef.org

               Norbert A. Wetzel

children, Teens, Young adults, Fear, Panic, Depression, Anxiety