How To Talk To Children And Teenagers About The Refugee Crisis

Ask them how they would address the crisis if it was up to them. Expressing interest and giving value to their ideas makes them feel important, useful and, above all, more willing to contribute and get involved.
04/14/2016 04:49 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2017
Refugee children pose for a photograph with their toys at the makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village
Refugee children pose for a photograph with their toys at the makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, on April 14, 2016. According to statistics released on April 8 by the International Organization of Migrants (IOM), more than 152,000 people have arrived in Greece by sea from Turkey since January 1, nearly three-quarters of whom were Syrians. / AFP / DANIEL MIHAILESCU (Photo credit should read DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images)

When the question comes your way, you must know what to say. Every question has one or more possible answers, and picking the right one isn't always easy. "Moms know everything," responds Clara, my five year-old, when I tell her I have no idea how to answer the question she had just asked me: "What is gas?" I tried Wikipedia, but I failed to explain it to her. Even Google didn't do the trick.

The world, whether it is in liquid, solid or gaseous form, is always complex. If the images of the appalling conditions awaiting refugees in the camps have angered you, then those of a father at the Idomeni refugee camp picking lice from his son's hair would have ripped apart your heart, conscience and soul.

Guillermo Fouce, a PhD in psychology and president of Psychologists Without Borders says that "children are not oblivious to what happens in their environment, and when something is on everyone's lips, they understand it. They process information according to their age."

The world is not fair and they will gradually realize it, but "in order to avoid creating a sense of helplessness, we must present them with alternatives, and if they don't agree, we must explain that they are entitled to protest," Fouce says.

Psychology Without Borders helps refugees arriving in Madrid -- often with various psychological challenges. Fouce identifies at least seven in this article.

When the time comes to decide whether or not to explain the refugee crisis to our children, "everything will depend on age," says Silvia ᅢチlava, a psychologist and the Director of the Children's Ward at the ᅢチlava Reyes Psychology Center.

"Ideally, the child will ask us about it, but if that doesn't happen, and unless we are dealing with a very young child, it's important for the adult to bring up the issue, since it's likely that the child already has some information and has seen and heard news related to it that he or she may not understand. This can be a good time to work on their empathy," ᅢチlava says. "We can use examples if they are younger," she continues, because "before they are 11 years-old their thinking is concrete and they struggle to understand abstractions."

ᅢチlava has prepared this invaluable guide for us, which might be useful for more than just a couple of moms and dads in distress.

How to Explain the Refugee Crisis to Children
  • Allow children to ask questions. If they don't, and if the child is not too young, the adult can bring it up because chances are, the child has already heard or seen something related to it.
  • The event must always be explained in a way that takes the child's age into account.
  • Don't lie. They must learn that there are countries at war, and that that's why people are forced to leave their homes.
  • You don't need to get into all the details or to give them more information than they need.
  • Always encourage an open dialogue. It is not enough to just tell them, you have to give them the space to express themselves.
  • Answer their questions. If we don't respond, they will look for information from another source, and it is better for them to hear it from their parents.
  • Help them identify emotions. You can tell them that you're sad and pained by the fact that those refugees have been kicked out of their homes.
  • Explain to them that there are evil people in the world, and link that to the concrete fact of war.
  • It's likely that they will ask whether the same thing can happen in our country. In such cases, we must reassure them and explain that it is not a likely scenario.
  • It's convenient to use the refugee crisis to talk about solidarity and empathy -- explain the reasons why we donate blankets, food, and money. It would be useful to ask them if they can think of some other ways to help.

And what about teenagers? "It's very likely that the refugee crisis has struck a chord with them," says ᅢチngel Peralbo, a psychologist and the Director of the Adolescent Ward at the ᅢチlava Reyes Psychology Center.

"We generally tend to prevent children from becoming immersed in human misery, and we do that without realizing that learning about it is the only way to develop rounded, real and mature personalities," Peralbo says.

In the case of adolescents, "it's particularly important for them to know, as best they can, the truth about the refugee crisis in all of its dimensions, not just the headlines," says Peralbo. He put forward the following suggestions about addressing the issue with teenagers.

How to Explain the Refugee Crisis to Teenagers
  • Find the right time. If a teenager is not receptive, it means that it's not the time to address some of these issues. Remember that adolescence is a stage of frequent changes. Nevertheless, remember that a good time to talk about this is usually when big news breaks. Catching their attention at that time might mean they are willing to listen and, above all, to participate.
  • It's very important to allow them to think about and discuss what has happened. Allowing them to express themselves freely and to participate, even if you don't agree with their opinions, is key. Tact and a bit of skill will help them listen to you.
  • Relying on images will be very useful, since teenagers prefer those to large amounts of information in either verbal or written formats. Images can help us move them, and, especially, they can help us facilitate emotional expression. At this age, they are prepared them to come face to face with almost anything, although it is preferable that adults clarify the meaning of certain visual impacts. But, like it or not, today they can access a previously unimaginable amount of images.
  • Help them differentiate between the political connotations of the issue and the realities that the refugees live through, since they are two parallel and different topics. News unfailingly mixes the reality of the crisis with the side effects and the differing views of the stakeholders, which is why the issue is so complex.
  • Don't overburden them with information. Repeated exposure to news content may lead to saturation and desensitization, if not rejection. It's better if we don't talk about it every time we have a chance.
  • Seek their involvement by urging them to provide some kind of help. Teenagers are very receptive to suggestions that allow them to feel useful. If they feel that they can provide assistance, no matter what kind, it may facilitate their emotional involvement.
  • Ask them how they would address the crisis if it was up to them. Expressing interest and giving value to their ideas makes them feel important, useful and, above all, more willing to contribute and get involved. This will also improve their self-esteem.
  • You must help them express their emotions and reflect on their grief, sadness, fear and even anger in the context of the refugee crisis.
  • Expose them to sources of information that analyze the news with more depth and that aim to understand rather than sensationalize. There are NGOs that live and talk about the crisis from a more comprehensive perspective than that achieved from a camera's objective. Teenagers are already prepared to dive into these realities.

There is no how-to guide to understand human misery. I just hope governments could care at least half as much as their people do. Or that those children and teenagers we spoke about could grow up to a more just world.

This post first appeared on HuffPost Spain. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.