Counseling the Immigrant family, Helping immigrant children and parents reconnect, parent-child conflict in immigrant families, Reunited Families, Serial Migration of Families, unaccompanied minors, Undocumented minors
Some of the roads that I have found helpful in working with these families include the following:
A starting point is to allow for the expression of all feelings in both parents and children regarding their present relationship in the safety of a one to one individual therapy mode if possible. Feelings such as anger, frustration and disappointment as the expectations of a perfect reunion never materialize for the parents, or for the children. Guilt on the part of the parents, as they now realize the negative effects of the long separation, on the relationship with their kids, in the emotional distance it created. In addition, the guilt and sadness on the part of the sons and daughters, as well, for not being able to feel their filial love; in particular, when the parents pressure them to express love to them. The fear of abandonment awakened by the emotional distance present in the relationship, for the child, a fear that maybe present for a long time as “they did it once, why not again? However, also for the parent, a fear that stems from his/her own stories of past abandonments in his/her own family history. Moreover, the hurt and anger over a failed reunion, in the face of great expectations fueled by: “how can these children be so ungrateful after all the money we have spent bringing them here and all the tremendous sacrifices we endured for them!!!” The vulnerability and shame, in both parent and child feeling unloved and unworthy of love because of feelings of inadequacy as a parent and, as the “bad” child who is unable to feel the affection and trust expected from him/her, which add so much pain and confusion to this already difficult situation. These feelings need to be expressed in the safety of an emotionally empathic, non-judgmental relationship with the therapist to allow for the power of the therapeutic relationship to produce its effect of healing. As these negative feelings are expressed, accepted and validated, as natural under the circumstances, the parent and child can then feel freer to open the way for the growth of more positive feelings towards each other. In order to allow for the best format to protect the individuals and give them some control over the intensity of the encounter, especially for the child, I have found it best to work individually at first. Later on, parent and child can face each other, as they feel less vulnerable, more supported by the therapist and with his/her help they can share some of their feelings, in their own time, as they feel prepared and comfortable and if necessary. By then, both parent and child have a better and more compassionate understanding of themselves, which is very important and hopefully, of the other, and have been able to get in touch with the emotional needs that lie underneath the anger, or the emotional distancing. They have done some of their grieving for the lost trust and have come to accept the connection between the very difficult separation they went through and their present conflicts, letting go of the guilt, because they can be helped to understand that under different circumstances the separation might have never occurred and because the feelings connected to that experience are totally what all of us human beings would feel.
At workshops at times I encounter professionals that have been taught that Latino families do not open themselves up to “strangers”, outsiders that are not part of the family. My experience and that of my colleagues does not support this assumption. On the contrary, these families are in such pain that any person offering a truly empathic “ear” is more than welcomed, particularly, the opportunity to air some of their frustration and pain, which constitute a major part of the healing process for the majority of them.
The therapist then needs to validate these feelings and frame them as normal, very human feelings, so that the healing in the parent child relationship can begin. This framing alleviates excessive guilt. As a culture traditionally influenced by catholic and other religious values, guilt is usually very strong, especially for women. Alleviating this guilt will help put a stop to so many projections onto the other and distancing emotionally, in an effort to alleviate the pain of possible rejection in the relationship. This will also help the parents establish clear rules and consequences for inappropriate behaviors exhibited by the youngsters, because guilt very often prevents them from asserting themselves, especially when after confronting a rebelling adolescent, they feel so disempowered and are often very near to giving up on their reasonable expectations, in order to minimize conflict . Particularly for these parents, who separated from their children and have not had the experience of the daily give and take of raising an adolescent, it seems helpful to let them know that all parents, whether separated from their children or not, have to struggle with situations like this. They all have to keep reminding themselves and also, their child that their role is to protect the children when they put themselves at risk, even when this will create a confrontation that of course is painful for both of them and it would be so much easier to avoid. But, as parents they can tell the child that they care too much about their welfare, so they will not give up, painful as that may be. And, like so many of us parents, they need someone to support them, clarify confusions and hold their hand when this firm posture is so hard, compounded for them by the frailty of the relationship with their child..
(To be continued)