As part of this idea of prevention, it becomes essential not to forget that the immigrant families are undergoing another forced separation, every day in our communities, as a consequence of enforcement of deportation of undocumented adults, who are the parents of children born in this country or reunited with them at a later time. Thus, these people are taken prisoner from work, or in their everyday activities, perhaps after a minor traffic infraction, and then locked away in detention facilities until the time court determines that they are to leave the country. Children usually have no opportunity to say good-by to their mothers or fathers and sometimes, they may end up court ordered into foster care, with the parental legal custody taken away. The emotional turmoil and pain this brings to the children and the parents is a tragedy, where the children become the innocent by-standers. Even though the government would like to enforce deportation only in cases of undocumented immigrants who have committed criminal offenses, in the real day to day, many people who have no records of such offenses end up deported and parents and children end up separated in a very painful way. (O’Neill, 2012) Thus prevention becomes the political activism of the Latino community, much as it has been with other immigrants before through history, and of its supporters. Hopefully these actions will prevent such unnecessary and inhuman deportations from happening, through persisting in their pressure to the government for an immigration reform that keeps families together in the absence of criminal offenses.
Short Term Psycho-educational Groups
In reviewing the publications about different studies or pilot interventions attempted in working with the Latino immigrant parents and their youngsters coming to join them after a long separation, one finds initiatives being tried in both clinical and school settings to address their psycho-educational needs through short term groups for parents and for the adolescents. The best initiatives, of course, are those that insert these psycho-educational group sessions as part of a longer term, on going family therapy and/or individual therapy or group therapy, which will continue to work with the families that present with problems that cannot be resolved with a short term intervention such as this. One such group is the family therapists at El Centro, from the University of Miami, under supervision by Drs. Daniel Santisteban and Maite P. Mena (Santisteban and Mena, 2009). They have been working with Hispanic adolescents from separated families as a subgroup of their work with Latino youth with behavioral and substance abuse problems. However, they underscore both the importance and limitations of the insertion of these psycho-educational materials in their larger program:
… “That is not to imply that one or two sessions spent discussing separation-related material, no matter how “corrective” the experience, can magically create a bond where none has existed. However, we have witnessed that these sessions do have a powerful positive effect on the responsiveness of the family to treatment as new frameworks for understanding their problems are opened”.
These researchers/clinicians have been developing a program called Culturally Informed and Flexible Family-Based Treatment for Adolescents for Hispanic families with children that have substance abuse problems as their presenting issue. CIFFTA includes several different components, besides family sessions, in order to better adapt their interventions to the great diversity that is the Hispanic population and its varied needs. Based on their research in a separate study, focused on investigating the links between immigration and acculturation-related factors, clinical processes, and adolescent behavior. they have come up with a flexible manual for the therapists involved with Hispanic adolescents who are abusing substances, or in other ways putting themselves at risk with their behaviors, and for their parents. The program also incorporates individual sessions for the adolescent that favor Motivational Interviewing strategies (Miller and Rollnick, 2002), which avoid the resistance usually triggered by direct confrontation in adolescents by therapy or authority figures. It also integrates, communication skills and crises management, as well as coping and education on acculturation and discrimination stress. When working with recent immigrants, psycho-educational interventions in a group mode are specifically intended to educate both parents and adolescents on the impact of their separation on the parent-child attachment to create a needed framework for their family sessions. The interventions add components that include parenting guidelines and education on adolescent risk behaviors for the parents i.e. drug/ sex education, as through their research they discovered that an important factor of the lack of communication with the adolescents on this area was the parent’s lack of confidence on their own knowledge about this topics. The CIFFTA program has a length of 16 weeks with 2 sessions per week. The authors have created a manual whose many different modules guide the therapist in choosing the best combination of interventions for each family according to their needs, while presenting problems in a culturally competent way and based on evidence sustaining their application to this population, as researched by the authors. Their hope is that the ability of the therapist to choose among a milieu of different modules of themes will help avoid the valid complain from therapists against manuals suppressing the flexible creativity needed in therapy, as well as the optimal building of rapport with the family.
Another such pilot program, utilizing a group format manual- based intervention, created with the collaboration of school and mental health clinicians in Los Angeles, California, is a school based mental health program for traumatized Latino immigrant children by Dr. Sheryl Kataoka et als (2003). This study was done with 198 students from third to eighth grade exhibiting symptoms of depression and PTSD as a result of exposure to community violence. During eight sessions, the youngsters received a manual-based cognitive-behavioral therapy, delivered in Spanish by bicultural/bilingual school social workers. Parents and teachers were also eligible to receive psycho-education on trauma and related interventions and support services. The students in the intervention group had significantly greater improvement of their symptoms of PTSD (trauma symptoms) and depressive symptoms, as compared with the students in the waiting list, though the gains were described as modest.
Other short term psycho-educational interventions that are manual-based, and directed more specifically at immigrant families separated for an extended time, are currently being developed using the information available on the most important issues identified by the literature as affecting these families. They are currently under way as pilots in different parts of the country, as for example in some secondary schools in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. Hopefully the results of such initiatives will be published, in the near future. School based programs to aid in the acculturation/adaptation stress of refugee children and families have emerged as well, as described by Rousseau and Guzder (2008), as also preventive programs directed towards immigrant and refugee families and children, also mainly in school settings, whose function is to help with adaptive family support and community support (Morse, 2005)
In addition, the workshops for the parents and the youngsters developed by this author and coming up in the next chapters can be easily translated into a format of short-term psycho-educational modules for both parents and students, as it will be discussed as they are introduced to the reader. Hopefully though, they will be utilized in conjunction with other forms of therapeutic intervention secured for the youngster and the parents, as those needs are identified for each family, either by school or mental health professionals. The workshop materials may be used as an introduction to the issues usually affecting the parents and young immigrants, as they struggle with their difficulties in developing trust. And, as an important opening to their dialogue about the impact of the separation in their current relational distance: a powerful underlying fuel that aggravates possibly all of their current emotional distress in the family and behavioral problems in the adolescent or younger child, because it blocks a conflict free communication between parent and child.
Central America, family reunification, Helping immigrant children and parents reconnect, Helping the Immigrant family heal after separation, parent-child conflict in immigrant families, Undocumented minors
Counseling teens in a group format, with other youth who experience similar pain in reuniting with their family, has proven a successful mode of intervention in the school system. The group becomes a source of support and nurturing even outside of the session, although the members may or may not be friends or classmates. In the experience of the author, these groups worked best for her when they were open and long term in their format, so members can stay for an extended time (in a few cases all through high school). In this format, new members are added each year, as some graduate, move, or cannot continue to attend. The more experienced members can then guide the new ones through the group process and help them develop trust with each other and new communication skills. Many other clinicians work in a short term group format with a limited number of sessions and a specific content. References to that kind of model will be described later as well. In the long term open group format, the members may originate from the workshops on the reunited families, as students interested in further counseling are identified after the presentation. Or, they may be offered the group during individual sessions with them from referrals from teachers, or self-referrals. In any case, every candidate has an intake with the clinician to evaluate the issues and needs for services of each child and to establish rapport. Participation in the group is voluntary. This kind of group can be run with one or two leaders. The ideal leader is someone who has gone through the experience of group therapy as a member/patient, who has had training in group therapy or is receiving supervised training, is continually upgrading his/her skills and is comfortable with this mode of counseling. In the group and under the ongoing modeling, encouraging and teaching from the leader/s plus an environment where safety, confidentiality and respect for each other is continually stressed, the adolescents can progressively learn many skills that will encourage the development of their emotional intelligence, thus fostering resilience and better interpersonal skills, besides receiving emotional support and guidance for the stresses in their lives as immigrant children in a reunited family. The same guidelines and principles utilized in individual therapy are the framework for the group counseling as well and reviewing them before and during the process of leading the members would be a wonderful aid in giving the individuals in the group the help they need in reconnecting successfully in their families. So it becomes a little bit like doing individual therapy in a group setting. This setting, however, has some great advantages that go beyond the ability to provide services to a greater number of youngsters. They learn progressively and at their own pace to talk about personal experiences and trust that others will hold their pain in respectful listening and then express their support. As they share, they inspire others to share similar experiences as well and thus learn that they are not alone in their suffering and that their feelings and reactions are the feelings that any person may have in those circumstances. They learn how to communicate support and understanding as well as setting limits to others, resolving conflict without losing self-control. They increasingly learn to pay attention to their inner feelings and experiences thus connecting their behavior with their observations –insight and self- knowledge. With help from the leader and others, they learn to put themselves in the other’s perspective, ie. parents, teachers, peers, etc. With coaching from the leaders they learn coping skills to handle painful emotions such as deep breathing, progressive relaxation, guided meditation and self- control strategies such a time out. They learn also how the way they think, or the way they interpret situations, particularly with the parents, may distort their perception and/or maintain negative feelings and outcomes. As they become better communicators, they may challenge and teach their parents to communicate more openly in ways probably the adults never did with anybody. The members of the group also “parent” each other and procure to stop self-defeating behaviors in each other. As they become increasingly more vocal with their thoughts and feelings, they confront each other, when long held resentments, or inability to trust in their parents’ love distorts their perception and expectations of them. The leader can also help them understand the possible cause for some behaviors or lack of emotional communication skills present in their parents and other adults around them from a perspective of lack of good models and opportunities for learning, or painful experiences in their lives. All very important emotional skills that will be useful to them in all of their relationships through life and that carry over to their present life at home. In there, hopefully they may become also the teachers and models to the parents and the siblings, maybe initiating new and positive forms of interaction and communication. The leaders will also impart, as needed, important information that impact their decision making in their current lives, such as falling into risky behaviors and their consequences, laws and regulations, resources and services and help available to them.
To be continued in next post.
Creating positive experiences as a family: creating memories together that can be part of the new family history, such as new rituals that can become uniquely theirs. My experience usually has been that these families have a real shortage of joy and frolic in their lives. Work and economical security have become their main goal in life for a number of them and the stress of survival and the hardships of their life does not encourage learning how to relax. Parents sometimes expect the same from their children: “they have come here to study and that is what they should be doing.” “At their age I was already working so hard”. Some of their adolescent children struggle with their demands to forget that which is most important to them: to be able to go out and spend a relaxed time with their friends as often as their studies and work allow it. Girls particularly seem hardest hit by their parents need for them to stay at home. “En la calle lo único que vas a encontrar son problemas“. “In the street all you will find is problems”. The “best” child is invariably the one described as the one who stays at home and does not socialize.
The newly arrived youngster is promptly curtailed in their freedom in ways that they perhaps did not experience at home. Of course this is greatly motivated by the parent’s desperate attempts to protect their sons and daughters from the dangers of the urban life in the neighborhoods where many of these families live. Drugs, gangs and teen pregnancy being the most feared enemies of the parents’ dreams for their children, particularly at this point in time when many of them are here to run away from those great dangers, as those violent forces have grown in their invasion of their lives and communities in their home countries. Nevertheless, they may still seem to have forgotten, or do not know how to have fun or relax together as a family, in this new country, except maybe for watching Spanish TV or going shopping, as their frustrated youngsters complain. Often they will respond well to some coaching in this area, with suggestions for cost free activities that they might enjoy and which are available near their residences. Some of these parents’ life experience has been one of only hard work both here and often also in their own country and they are so tired at the end of a week that is difficult for them to find the energy to do something new. As a consequence of all these barriers, these reunited parents frequently feel lost in how to allow their adolescents learn to handle gradual increases of freedom in safe and responsible ways, which of course is not an easy task for any parent. They are scared of this very new and challenging environment of the big American city and this is compounded by their undocumented status, which constantly places them and their children at great risk, as any problem with the law, even a small infraction, could immediately result in the possibility of deportation, a devastating tragedy for the whole family. They may also have memories of the violent environments they have experienced before coming here and the lessons learned there, which translate into a great fear of trusting people they do not know well. Conversely, they do not know ways in which they can keep a sensible control, instead of giving up completely in total desperation, as they at times do, particularly with their sons, in fear the youngsters will run away, or increase their acting out of control. Thus, for the reunited family as with many a family with adolescents, parenting skills are very important, more so when parent and child have not had the usual gradual give and take of those families that have “grown up” together. The parenting skills training, however, cannot be the same as that of the main stream middle class family, but it should take in consideration the real dangers the kids are facing living in often violent and perilous environments and be sensitive to the cultural differences and cultural histories of these families. Along with a key element, which is taking into account the special issues brought by the prolonged separation that the family needs to resolve in order to experience a successful parenting experience. Therefore, it has to recognize and empathize with the difficulty the lack of trust between parent and child plays in building a solid team relationship between them, basic for discipline to work, hence it has to make available the needed help with slowly building that trust. The ideal outcome is one of building the confidence of the parent in their ability to parent this adolescent and learning how they as parents have a right to ask from their teens that they also need to earn the parent’s trust in them by honoring the limits the parent sets for them, in order to receive their wished increment in freedom of movement. Trust is an earned privilege that all parts involved have to earn in this equation and that it is their obligation as parents to be on the look-out to protect them and the family as a whole, from dangers unforeseen by the adolescent. Simultaneously, it has to communicate to them as the parenting trainer that you understand how difficult and scary at times enforcing the rules is for them, given that they are just starting to build a relationship with their child. Or, they might politely agree with your well- intended efforts to empower them, but feel like a total failure inside, which is exactly the opposite of what they need. In fact this might be one of the many times you can ask: “Tell me more about how this is particularly difficult right now for you”, and work from there. And this maybe one of the many times in which the wise parent trainer needs to engage the suggestions of solutions that may have worked for the other parents in the audience that may have a deeper understanding of parenting in the world of the undocumented immigrant family than any trained expert who has never lived that experience.
Finally, the parents and the kids have to become aware of the different laws to abide and their responsibilities in this society, which may be different, or more strictly enforced from the ones at their home country. In particular information that empowers parents and may increase awareness of consequences for the adolescent in preventing problems with the law, for example curfew laws for minors.
Going back and trying to recapture some of the events lost by sharing anecdotes about when they were together on the part of the parents, or asking their children to share with them the important or not so important episodes of their life that they missed. One of the most significant experiences that I have always asked the parents to share with their children is how they felt when they left them. How they spent nights thinking about them. How much they missed them and the tears they cried when they saw other children, or a picture of them, etc. The children crave to hear how important the weight of the separation was emotionally for the parent, to hold on to this confirmation of the parents love for them, especially when the going gets rough in the present. For the youngsters it will be more difficult to share as they may withhold information out of their natural anger over the parents’ missing out on important parts of their lives and/or fear of trusting the parents with information that they dread the parents will disapprove, as well as a fear of hurting their feelings and/or seeing their pain. This is a point where guidance from a trusted therapist would help in letting them know that tears and pain are OK and in fact good in getting them closer to their parents. They can cry together at the sadness of opportunities lost. Teaching the parents also about trying to hold criticism and education about values for another time, in order to allow the flow of communication to continue when the youngster is starting to open up and concentrate instead on building trust first. This is the time when both parents and children need from to learn from the professionals or other parents good communication skills such as open questions that encourage sharing and validation of feelings to make the other experience “I am being heard”.
In her recently published book Latino Families in Therapy, Second Edition, Dr. Celia Falicov suggests restoring a Shared Family Story by constructing a Catching-Up Life Narrative which makes the idea of sharing the events before, during and after the separation, which is encouraged during therapy sessions, into a product that can be a palpable object. So the stories can be even made into a book or a diary, where these narratives can be recorded and illustrated also with photos or drawings of the houses where the family lived before and after the separation and the narrative goes all the way up to the present. For a media appealing to young children she suggest a helpful tool called the family floor plan where children can draw in a large piece of paper in response to guided questions that may open up the expression of feelings. (Coppersmith, 1980) Again in her new book, Dr. Falicov also suggest the idea of composing a certificate of legitimization which purpose is to clarify and reinstate the role of the parent(s) in its due place in the children’s lives, while at the same time honors the role of the substitute parent, recognizing the contributions as the caretaker of the children. It also makes room for the fact that the caretaker has a much deeper knowledge of the children and needs to help the parent in performing his/her parenting in the present and future. This certificate could form part of a celebration of the reunification as suggested by her, where guests could be invited and which is planned together as a family. (Falicov, 2014). For further details you can read them in the chapter about Transnational Therapies.
Central America, Effects of parent-child separation, family reunification, Helping immigrant children and parents reconnect, parent-child conflict in immigrant families, Serial Migration of Families, The hidden emotional cost of immigration, Undocumented minors
A central part of the healing of the relationship has to include the asking for forgiveness when abuse or trauma has happened to the child in the absence of the parent. The parent failed his/her natural role as a protector of the child, even when this was done unintentionally in the name of seeking a better future for the family. The asking for forgiveness and even offer some form of symbolic restitution or seeking of justice for the perpetrator should ideally happen so that the child can begin to bond with the parent. Family therapist Cloé Madanes has made clear the importance of this process in healing the soul of the abused child in cases of incest in general and we can look at her writings about it as one possible guide towards handling such situations, though her model is for a family that has never separated, so the situation is from the start different. Many other therapists also work extensively on including a process that will start or puts in place the seeds for the forgiveness to continue through life, in all forms of abuse and trauma, as a form of helping the healing of the victim.
At first glance, it seems very difficult for some therapists to set the stage for a parent to ask for forgiveness from a child in the Latin culture, where the concept of respect for the parents is so paramount. However, I found a great number of parents that had done this already with no prompting from anybody because they strongly felt it was the right thing to do, to start rebuilding the relationship with the child. I also found that many parents were not aware of the traumatic or abusive experiences the child went through during their separation, but when they were made aware, they found the asking for forgiveness a clear road For those others that struggled with it, once the parent understands the purpose and the need: accepting the fact that even unwillingly the parent had failed to protect his or her child and that they are very conscious of the pain the child had to go through because of it, then he/she is able to empathize with the child and they are prepared to do it. Of course they will also be some parents who are unable to do it and this might have connections to their own history of abuse, or perhaps sadly for the child, their very strong need to maintain their relationship to the perpetrator or other needs to deny the incident. Asking for forgiveness is a process that requires careful preparation of both the parent and the child. As the Madanes model emphasizes, and really, the majority of psychotherapy models, the victim is not pressured to forgive. In this case, the healing starts to take place as the child can see a sincere gesture of remorse and compassion for their pain in the apology of the parent. This opens the door for the child to start to express the feelings and conflicts he has experienced towards the parent, in the past as well as in the present, in connection with the situation of abuse. This will come about only if their relationship feels safe enough and he/she feels the parent is not so fragile that the disclosures will be too much, The disclosures will happen usually first to the therapist and then slowly and as needed to the parent, with the parent’s support. Then the process can begin for the child to eventually be able to let go of the painful feelings and therefore its stronghold of the experience in his/her life. Needless to say, the parents need a great amount of support all through this experience as well. (Madanes, 1990)
Even though mothers sometimes have told me that they have already asked for the forgiveness of the child, however, in further conversation, it is clear that this has not been done in a way that allows for the experience to really register in the mind of the child. In other words, the child has not really been able to “hear” it and take it in. Therefore, it needs to be done again, hopefully in a much more powerful way. The mothers (or fathers, as the case may be) need to speak from the heart and focus completely on their pain at the events that have happened, rather than trying to immediately justify her actions in rational ways, like “I had no choice but to leave then”. They might need to voice their wish for magically going back in time and doing things totally different, if they could, or in a perfect world, so that the child never suffered the terrible experiences they went through. “They would have never done it if they knew what was going to happen.” The parents also need to allow and give permission for the child to listen without an obligation to forgive, as forgiveness can take a longer time. Just expressing their sincere tremendous regret is what is important at this time for the relationship to start to heal. The therapy work for the child will emphasize this freedom to choose to forgive only when ready and when they have a real understanding of what this means through us as therapists educating them about this process. As Jack Kornfield, PhD., a Buddhist psychologist who has taught, written and lived forgiveness for over 40 years explains it in his presentations: Forgiveness does not mean condoning the past, or forgetting about the past. In fact, the victim still needs to protect herself, or himself and others “While I forgive you, I will not let this harm continue.” It is not about forgetting about what happened, so “It is not a quick papering over, or quick fix, or denial of the past. Instead it is a long process where you “start working through the grief, the outrage, the anger, the fear and the loss, and when it feels impossible at times, you hold yourself with forgiveness because it takes its own time.” Forgiveness is not really for the other, it is the gift you give to yourself” It is a gift of freedom: to be free of the bitterness and anger that can poison your life and imprison you for years to come. (Kornfield, 2008). The steps described here are just the beginning of a long process, but the importance of the parents asking for forgiveness honors the child’s pain and can start the process of healing.
Effects of parent-child separation, Helping immigrant children and parents reconnect, parent-child conflict in immigrant families, reunified families, Serial Migration of Families, Transnational families, Undocumented minors
Helping parents and children understand and accept that the children cannot feel the filial love they expect of them and this is a normal consequence of the separation. Some parents feel tremendous hurt and disappointment when they are confronted with the reality that their children are more strongly attached to a grandparent, or another adult that was at their side while growing up, than to them. A father put it into his own words this way: “ …¡Pero, como puede ser eso, si la sangre es más fuerte!!” “How can that bewhen the blood ties are stronger!! While recognizing how painful this must be for the parent, it is important to keep presenting the facts of the natural consequences of prolonged separations. Insisting that this happens in all cases where parents have been separated for such a long time, not just to them. Sometimes, as well, it may be possible and necessary to identify and separate the feelings that belong to their past history of losses, abandonment, or neglect in theirown family, now reawaken by the child’s apparent rejection, from the current relationship with their child, in order to facilitate this process of acceptance of a painful reality.
The parents, and also their children reuniting with them, necessitate the understanding that they separated from the child as an adult, so that the memories and feelings towards the child were very much present in them all the time. Not only that, but they have been struggling for so long and working so hard, precisely to be able to bring their son or daughter, so, they have been very much at the center of the parents life. Not so for the children. Their memories and feelings for the parent have faded with time, as it is normal for any young child whose memories are fragile; furthermore, other persons replaced them as his/her center of gravity, because the child needs to bond to the new caregiver to feel secure and continue safely into their development. So, this is the same information that the child needs to hear, so that he/she can let go of the feelings of being a “bad child”, “an ungrateful child”, “or, an “unloving child.”
Often it becomes necessary to repeat this new framing many times, due to the great emotional weight of the meaning the parent attributes to his/her perception of rejection, when the child expresses his/her attachment to someone else, or shies away from the parental attempts to get closer. Once, I witnessed an immediate reaction from the parent, during a presentation of these facts in a workshop. A mother turned to her daughter, in front of everybody, and asked indignantly and loudly: “Is that true that you do not love me?” Forcing the child to painfully lie and feel guilty and ashamed in front of everybody. Of course, this type of parent did not hear anything else, but that isolated fact, ignoring all the explanations for such a phenomenon and refusing to accept the larger truth. Rejection is a much feared possibility for such a parent and totally intolerable. More than likely, it is a painful issue in this parent’s history. If this issue is ignored, it will probably always obscure and distort the relationship with her children and other important persons in her life. Unfortunately, we cannot always engage such parents in counseling possibly because their ability to trust another person may be impaired by painful life experiences. In those cases we may only be able to work with the child, trying to make him or her understand that this is the parents little inside child feeling the hurt of rejection because of past experiences, which sadly she or he cannot separate from the young person in front of them, even though it has nothing to do with her/him and what this child is feeling right now is what all children feel under the same situation of prolonged separation.
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)
7.d. The Caretaker/Parents Conflict
This conflict is much like the divided loyalties and pain of children of divorce whose parents put them in the middle of a bitter battle. There may be old conflicts between the grandparents and parents that get re-enacted again in the reunited family. Parents attribute the emotional distance between them and the newcomer child to “stories” the child heard from the grandparents who “badmouthed” them, or presented them as a neglectful and uncaring parent. In Avelina’s case, she recalled: “My mother told my daughter that if it wasn’t for her taking care of her, who knows what would have happened to her, since I just didn’t care and had abandoned her.” Of course, when they reunited, conflict was rampant between this daughter and this mother. In spite of the assurances from the mother, that the story the grandmother had told her was false, the doubt regarding her mother’s love and commitment still lingered in this daughter’s heart. The daughter was always reacting with rejection and rebelliousness to the mother’s efforts to establish a closer relationship and all she said she wanted was to go back home to her grandmother.
Sometimes, whether the parents are right or wrong about their evaluation of the grandparents’ “wrongdoings” as parents, or in raising the grandchild, they start to criticize the grandparents to the child. This causes immediate anger and resentment in the child who has internalized these figures as his/her “real” parents and experiences great loyalty towards them. Luis, amid tears of anger would say:” I won’t tolerate my mother talking bad things about my grandma. I get very angry and I start yelling at her. Shut up! I love my grandma!” This of course is heard by the mother as “…and I don’t love you!” which creates in her an even bigger impulse to attack the grandmother and put her down in the eyes of the child, thus increasing the battle.
Many times the conflict is over child rearing practices. Some parents complain that the grandparents spoiled the kids, never teaching them to assume any of the household responsibilities. They feel that now they have to undo all the damage. Underneath all criticism, there may also be a feeling of jealousy at the sad truth that their parents were much more nurturing and accepting of the behavior of their grandchildren than they had ever been with them. Instead, to these parents growing up, they may have been abusive, inflexible and harsh. Some adults can express these feelings of jealousy directly and allow themselves to mourn the loss of a better childhood. For others, these feelings are buried under many stories they tell themselves of why the conflict keeps growing between their kids and themselves.