The history of the parent-child relationship as it unfolds before, during and after the separation, weighs heavily on the outcome of the reunification. The ability to bond, trust, communicate and re-establish a functional relationship has so many factors that increase the risk for problems, that sometimes navigating them requires a long and patient work of repair for all the actors of this drama.
6.a. So Much Water Gone Under the Bridge
Javier, talking about his life in El Salvador remembered an event “coincidentally” as he was talking about his anger at his mom: “We had gone out in the fields with my little brother. We were looking for mangos. I must have been 8 or 9 and my little brother was 5. I went up a tree, real high and all of a sudden the branch broke. I fell down on my butt. The pain was so intense I felt like I had broken every bone in my body. I couldn’t move for a long time, while my little brother laughed and laughed. For a while there, I thought I was going to die. I didn’t tell anybody ’cause I knew they would punish me.” Although he was telling the story as something comical, half laughing, he immediately responded with tears when I commented on how this was a frightening experience for a little boy and how much he must have needed his mom to comfort him at that time. The connection with his anger at his mom, now reunited with him, was now easier to make.
6.b. Physical and Emotional Abuse
Some children have been left with abusive relatives who used the money the parents sent for their own needs and then acted miserly and hostile with the children, abusing them physically, emotionally and/or sexually. The children were not able to communicate this painful experience to the parents, because their contact with them was always monitored by the caretakers. Therefore, the stories do not come up until they arrive. When the parents are reunited with the children, the disclosure of the abuse to the parent, causes them great pain and guilt. These feelings tremendously complicate the already difficult path of parenting teens, who are developmentally trying to assert their independence and carve a separate identity through testing the parental authority, and particularly, teens that are for all purposes total strangers to these parents because of the time elapsed while living apart. Simultaneously, the youngsters’ anger at the parents, for leaving them unprotected in the face of abuse and neglect, becomes a major obstacle in reestablishing a loving and trusting bond between parent and child. This is a wound in the heart of the child that will take a great deal of time to heal and forgiveness will not come easily. The sense of abandonment and mistrust is massive for these children.
In some cases the parents are not told about the neglect or abuse the children endured in the home of the caretaker. There is not enough intimacy in the relationship to share such painful experiences, or the child feels the need to protect the parent from the ugly truth or, unconsciously, from his/her own strong feelings about it. This fact may come up a lot later, as the youngster becomes seriously depressed or develops severe behavior problems.
Grandparents, or other caretakers, may have been physically abusive to the extreme of creating a constant feeling of terror and rage in the child. The memories are traumatic and intolerably painful. Unfortunately, many times the parents did not have better options opened to them at the time of making the decision to leave the children, even though they, at some level, knew they were leaving them with unsuitable caretakers. It then becomes seemingly impossible for the child to forgive them.
Rómulo was left with an uncontrollably violent alcoholic grandfather who terrorized the grandmother and the three children left in their care. One day, he forced the youngsters, in spite of their fears, to help him set up a fire under a nest of killer bees in the middle of his corn field. As the children did so, the bees attacked them, causing the youngest of the children to die and sending the others to the hospital for a week. When his remarried father heard of the incident, he brought Rómulo over to live with him and his new wife. The youngster, once in his new home, started constantly acting out, both in the house and in school. None of the efforts that father and his wife attempted to make this young teen develop some trust in them were successful, and things just kept going from bad to worse. Two years later, he was in a juvenile detention center for gang related association and trying to steal a stereo from a car. However, the agency handling this case understood that Rómulo had great psychological problems resulting from his traumatic history and the loss and separation from his parents. It took a year of residential treatment to start Rómulo in the road to emotional recovery. He was one of the very few fortunate immigrant children who were able to receive such intensive and costly services. After exiting the program he became a total success story. He was able to heal from the traumatic experience and re-establish a relationship with his father and he was able to finish high school with good grades. A totally different young guy came back one day to our Middle School to say hello and thank you, flashing a beautiful smile.
Yanira was left with her aunt. At 7 years of age she had to take care of her aunts children while she worked. She would be severely beaten anytime she made a mistake in cooking, cleaning or looking after the children. At the same time, the aunt never took the time to train her, piling on her impossible tasks like cooking or ironing. She tried running away several times, but every time her aunt would find her and severely beat her up and bring her back home. She lived in terror of the next beating. When she came here, as a 13 year old girl, her relationship with her mom was in constant turmoil. The mother never beat her up, but had a strong temper and she was greatly scared of her mother’s outbursts. Nonetheless, her own anger at her mother was even greater, and theirs was an endless battle of wills. The mother knew about the abuse, but could not tolerate the pain of hearing about it and would hush Yanira anytime she started talking about it. So, progress in helping with the hurt and anger in Yanira’s heart was at a crawling pace. Fortunately, in spite of her harsh exterior, this mother really cared for her and was starting to really understand and give patiently to Yanira the time and space she needed to forgive and trust.
Ana was an excellent student, with good grades and a nice attitude, but when she finally decided to open up her hidden sadness and despair came pouring out. When her parents left and she stayed behind with her grandparents, her grandfather started to become increasingly sicker and ended up bed bound. As the oldest of the children, she was supposed to help in his care when her grandmother was busy. By now she had become a young teen and his grandfather started trying to fondle her every time she tried to help in washing him up or feed him. She felt disgusted and shocked, and tried to resist, but felt she could not tell her grandmother about it, as the old lady was already overwhelmed with all the problems as it was. Her mother, a very loving daughter, was always calling to find out about the father’s well- being and worried about him so much while also proclaiming her admiration and love for him. Ana felt she could not tell her about the grandfather’s inappropriate behavior towards her, as their relationship was not strong enough after her mother’s long absence and she probably would not believe her, given her feelings for him. So she kept her problems to herself. Life became totally miserable for her and she felt great relief when the parents decided to bring her over. When she came, instead of going away, the ugly memories of the incidents kept coming back and were also invading her dreams. She felt particularly bad when her mother would start talking lovingly about the grandfather and worrying about his health. She started feeling more and more depressed and trapped in her despair, to the point of wishing she was dead. As our conversations continued, fortunately she started to feel better receiving support and validation of her feelings, as well as a clear message that what this grandfather had done to her was a horrible way of behaving towards a helpful, kind and innocent child. He had failed as her caretaker, abusing her vulnerable situation. It took a long time for Ana to be able to disclose the abuse to the mother and the mother, in spite of intervention to prepare her to support Ana, unfortunately immediately tried to get her to forgive the man, and was unable to confront him with his behavior. In spite of this, Ana, was slowly able to recover from her depression, decided to go the road of forgiving this man for now, and by the time she was graduating from high school was happily getting herself prettied up for her prom date.
From the first mother of a reunited family to the last I have seen, past abuse of the child at the hands of the caregivers back in their country becomes the most difficult barrier to the relationship. Different mothers handle these situations differently. Some become entangled in guilt, while others attempt to defend against the guilt feelings by censoring the child’s expressions of pain, distancing themselves from the child, hiding behind a withholding and toughened demeanor, but still conscious of the “white elephant” in the room, that never gets talked about. It has been my experience that quite a few of these reactions are rooted in unresolved feelings about childhood abuse in the mothers’ own lives. Compassionately helping these mothers deal with the painful guilt and carefully opening the door to sharing the painful memories of their own past abuse, seems to be a helpful way out of the stalemate and the begining of healing for both mother and child.