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Immigrating With Young Children

Terrified is an Understatement

Imagine being torn away from everything and everyone familiar to you. Separated from your family, your friends, and your home. What would you do? How would you feel? Picture, for a moment, being surrounded by people and feeling the loneliest you have ever felt in your entire life. You cannot tell anyone how you feel, what you think, or what you need, and you're helpless to change the situation. Parents, have you ever lost sight of your child in a crowded store for just a moment? Do you remember that feeling in the pit of your stomach that doesn't go away until you lay your eyes on them again? Now, imagine carrying that feeling for days and weeks at a time. What I described above is a typical school day for an immigrant child.

Almost as horrible as leaving my family behind was having to sit in a room full of strangers whose language I didn't speak daily. All I could think about was how much I missed my grandparents, cousins, home, and dog. I cried every day, which gave the other kids another reason to avoid me. My poor dad had to pick me up early at school every day because I was inconsolable. "I WANT TO GO HOME, PLEASE!". I remember the hopelessness on my dad's face. He just wanted to make everything better, and he simply couldn't, despite his many efforts.

I share my experiences, hoping parents who find themselves in my parent's situation understand their child's feelings. Although children are resilient and typically adapt quickly to new conditions, they still need time. Patience is crucial when trying to help a traumatized child; make no mistake, this massive change in their life is traumatic. The child needs to be able to talk to you about their fear without guilt. I never wanted to talk to my parents about how I felt because they always looked so sad when I did. Seeing that look on their faces was awful, so I stopped talking about it. As a result, I could not sleep for days at a time, had constant stomach aches, and was nauseated most of the day. Finally, I made a friend. She immigrated from Spain several years back and spoke Spanish and English. Since I spoke Portuguese, we could communicate, and she became my person. I believe she saved me from months of misery. After some time, I learned English enough to share, making my school experience much more bearable.

As parents, we struggle with how to raise them "correctly." As toddlers, we teach them please and thank you, not to chew with their mouth open, when to use the potty and how to share. As they age, the struggles get more complex as we combat peer pressure and all of the accompanying behaviors. In addition to the "normal" challenges that we tackle, immigrant parents must tend to their children's emotional and psychological troubles. Many children become withdrawn and depressed in the face of such changes. In many cases, they don't know how to express their feelings; in others, they don't want to disappoint or upset their parents, so they suffer in silence.

Over the years, I have educated many parents with children on what they can do to help immigrant children in their schools. As parents, we are focused on our children and are not likely to proactively talk to them about what other kids in their class may be going through. If you have school-aged children, ask them if they have kids who don't speak the language in their class. Teach them tolerance, encourage them to be kind to others, and what a fantastic thing it is to embrace other cultures. I sincerely hope that you will share my experience with the children in your life; maybe your child can be the one to make their classmate's day just a little brighter. Most days, all I needed was a friendly smile to show me that light was at the end of a very dark tunnel.

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How Can You Help Your Child Adjust?

Do not ignore the silence and sadness. It is challenging to address, and you may think it will just go away, but it doesn't. These children need to express themselves and allow their emotions to be heard. Here are some tips on how to get your child talking:

  1. Have 1 day per week designated for an outing. (The movies, park, etc.)
  2. Have a conversation about something significant that happened during your workday.
  3. Ask questions about their day. (What is your teacher's name?, Did you learn anything new?)
  4. When your child expresses anger or sadness about the situation, do not try to convince them that he/she is wrong. Their emotions are valid and belong to them, not you.
  5. HAVE PATIENCE. Don't get angry if your child is frustrated; let them vent.
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The key is to get your child talking about it. Put yourself in their shoes. Do you need to vent when you have had a rough day? Yes? Well, your children do too.

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© 2014 Celia Ribeiro

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