How to Emotionally Support One’s Family During The Current Political Climate
The inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States, his reported intent to build a wall along the US-Mexican border, and his recent ban on refugees and immigrants from 7 Muslim-majority countries have ignited a sense of fear and hopelessness in marginalized communities such as African Americans, Muslims, Latinos, immigrants/refugees, and the LGBTIQ population. The far-reaching impact of policy changes on these communities is still to be seen, as events continue to unfold and Trump issues Executive Orders and restructures the government. Without a doubt those most vulnerable right now are children, who may not fully understand the nuances of current political events, but are keenly perceptive of the emotional climate within their households, schools, and communities. This article has been put together to address how to support children and families impacted by the current political climate.
Many families that have immigrated to the United States from war-torn places and/or poverty-stricken communities with hopes of building a new, safe life in the United States are no longer feeling secure. The current “Muslim ban” and discussion of borders and walls may be especially traumatizing for those individuals who have already been exposed to trauma or loss. Even individuals that have lived in the United States for generations and may be United States citizens may be feeling a sense of vulnerability and anxiety related to feeling insecure in one’s status and future stability. Research demonstrates that the rise of Islamophobia is damaging to the mental health of Muslims. Several studies indicate that anti-Muslim discrimination has been linked to higher levels of depression (Amer and Hovey, 2012; Hodge, Zidan, & Husain, 2015), anxiety, and post-traumatic stress (Abu-Ras & Abu-Bader, 2009). Many families are currently being torn apart due to travel restrictions, students are unable to return to their educational institutions, and individuals are being forced to discontinue their employment. Lives are in limbo and families are wondering how to support each other. The following are some tips for how parents can support their children:
Firstly, Consider Your Child’s Socio-Emotional Development:
Developmentally, young children neither have the mental capacity to understand all events, nor the communication skills to verbally articulate their emotions and thoughts at the level of adults. Children’s emotions may instead be demonstrated through their play, school refusal, behavior, or changes in sleeping and/or feeding patterns. Older children are better able to verbalize their fears, but still need much emotional support. Current questions and fears that children and adults may currently experience are as follows:
- Am I and my family safe?
- What will happen to me?
- Who will take care of me?
- Will we be deported?
- Does our President and everyone hate us?
- What do my neighbors really think of me?
- Will we be placed in internment camps?
- Will our overseas family still be allowed to visit us? Can we still visit them?
- Will my classmates bully me?
- Will my friends no longer like me?
- How could someone so mean become president?
- Will my religious institution be bombed?
- Will I be stripped of my civil liberties?
Facilitate Family Discussions:
Family discussions are an important way to check in with your child and to make decisions as a family. It is important to factor in your child’s developmental stage. Use simple and clear language that your child can understand. It is important to validate your child’s emotions. Normalize that it is okay to have and express emotions and help your child label what emotion he or she is experiencing, be it fear, anxiety, anger, or sadness—or all of the above. It is okay to show your own emotions as a means of normalizing the sharing of emotions and thoughts, but do not place on your child the burden of being your emotional support. The focus of the discussion should be your child’s thoughts and emotions, rather than your own. You can let your child know that you are also experiencing those emotions, but you should stress that you are available to protect and support them. It is important to reassure your child about his or her safety, even if you are uncertain what the future holds during these unpredictable times. Know that youth and adults alike may experience a sense of alienation/isolation, a sense of helplessness or hopelessness, believing that they are insignificant and do not belong in a country that they have considered their home. Reassure your child of the goodness of society. Prompt your child to identify supportive individuals in his/her life. If your child cannot do so, provide examples for your child. For older children, consider discussions related to safety in the community and at school.
Create an Action Plan:
As a family, create an action plan for emergencies. Instruct your child to travel in groups, particularly if your child wears hijab (the Islamic headscarf). Role-play with your child how to seek assistance in various settings (i.e. home, school, community). Designate a relative or trusted family friend to care for your child if something sudden were to happen to you. Know your rights regarding how to respond in a situation when your civil liberties may be threatened. Maintain a readily-accessible resource list that includes health services, social services, legal resources, etc.
Connect with Your Child’s School:
If you are not already communicating with your child’s school, this may be a good time to do so to advocate for your child’s needs. Meet with your child’s school administration to learn about what steps they are taking to support students. Be aware of support services they may offer, such as psychologists or therapists who can meet with your child in the school setting, if needed. Be aware of the impact of Islamophobia, particularly in the form of bullying in school settings, on your child. A 2013 survey conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), demonstrated that 10% of children surveyed in California had been bullied because of their Muslim identity, and 55% of surveyed Muslim students reported experiencing at least one type of bullying (physical, verbal, or cyber bullying) (CAIR, 2013). Speak to your child about bullying, how to seek support at school if he or she is being bullied, and how to be an ally to those who may be victimized in school and other settings. If your school does not have curriculum in place for staff to address bullying, Islamic Networks Group (ING) can provide anti-bullying presentations and information to schools. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) also provides booklets for youth related to bullying and civil rights.
Maintain Your Routine:
In times of uncertainty, it can be easy to get thrown off one’s routine and to also want to keep one’s child close. It is instinctive for a parent to want to protect one’s child, and in doing so, that parent may be tempted to keep his or her child from attending school, which can in turn be disruptive. Instead, try to maintain your family’s daily routine, as that will provide a sense of predictability and stability, thereby reducing your child’s anxiety.
Limit Your Child’s Exposure to Media:
Media (i.e. television, social media, radio stations) can provide alarming and confusing images and information. Your child may not have the capacity to process or understand this information on his or her own. It is highly recommended that you limit your child’s exposure in this area.
Connect with Your Community:
Staying connected to your local support network is critical. Visit your extended family and friends regularly and provide positive opportunities for enjoyment and bonding. In a climate of hate crimes against religious institutions, you may feel uneasy attending your local religious or community center. You may want to contact your local mosque board and learn what steps are being taken to address your safety concerns. If you are religious or spiritual, your faith leaders or faith community may provide you with a sense of reassurance, and you may also notice that engaging in your religious rituals (e.g. attending prayer services) could alleviate your fear and anxiety. Also, connecting with the larger community will help you and your family see that there are allies and advocates ready to assist you. You may experience that attending a demonstration or peaceful rally can instill within youth and families a sense of hope and belonging, thereby reducing isolation, fear, and despair. When doing so, you may need to limit how long you participate in such a rally; notice the impact on your child and if your child is feeling hungry, tired, or anxious, it is time to address your child’s needs by taking a break or returning home. You can also model for your child civic engagement by writing letters to your state representatives and sharing your concerns. Also, you may experience that serving others through volunteering your time and efforts within your local community can foster a sense of accomplishment, improved self-esteem, and connection with others.
Report Hate Crimes and Seek Legal Consultation:
Report hate crimes with your local authority and seek legal and immigration support from legal and civil liberties advocacy groups. Organizations to consider contacting are as follows:
Seek Professional Therapeutic Support:
Finally, if you notice that your own or your loved one’s emotional distress or behavioral challenges are persistent, professional psychotherapeutic services may be helpful. There are trained professionals available to support your psychological well-being. For Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area, consider visiting the Bay Area Muslim Therapists website to find a therapist who can provide culturally competent services to meet your needs, and to access a community resource list.
Abu-Ras, W., & Abu-Bader, S. H. (2009). Risk factors for depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): The case of Arab and Muslim Americans post-9/11. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 7(4), 393-418.
Amer, M. M., & Hovey, J. D. (2012). Anxiety and depression in a post-September 11 sample of Arabs in the USA. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 47(3), 409-418.
Council on American-Islamic Relations [CAIR]. (2013) Growing in faith: California Muslim youth experiences with bullying, harassment, & religious accommodation in schools. http://ca.cair.com/downloads/GrowingInFaith.pdf
Hodge, D. R., Zidan, T., & Husain, A. (2015). Depression among Muslims in the United States: Examining the role of discrimination and spirituality as risk and protective factors. Social work, swv055.
About the Author
Shereen Khan-Amrikani is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in the San Francisco Bay Area who has been working in the mental health field since 2007, providing community-based services to at-risk and emotionally disturbed youth and families. Her experience includes working with at-risk youth and families involved with the child welfare system suffering from intergenerational trauma, domestic violence, substance abuse, chronic homelessness, and/or placement within the foster-care system. As a Muslim, person of color, and daughter of immigrants, she is especially interested in topics such as spirituality, social justice, immigration and acculturation, and multicultural issues. She currently serves youth, adults, couples, and families. For more information about her services, please visit www.ShereenMFT.com.