August 17, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Hello MindSite News readers! In this edition, meet 12-year-old Mohammad from Afghanistan, who decided the only way he could save his family was to risk his life to board an evacuation flight leaving the country for the United States and then to persuade officials to send for his family. Spoiler alert: There’s a happy ending, but many Afghan children and teen refugees who come here alone suffer from hopelessness and ‘detention fatigue.’

Also in this edition: A school district in Chelsea, Massachusetts, runs a well-loved program for pregnant and parenting teens. Teaching interdependence for happier kids. The dangers of Florida’s Baker Act for kids. Plus: Pregnancy and poor mental health are linked to preterm births. And more.

At just 12 years old, Mohammad Halim Shams ran away from his family in Afghanistan in order to bring them to safety

Today, Mohammad Halim Shams, 14, lives in North Buffalo with most of his immediate family. His parents and seven of his siblings share a subsidized four-bedroom home in a neighborhood where loud arguments and police sirens often awaken them in the night. Resources are tight; several family members still need government authorization to get jobs. But life is blissful – especially compared to his flight from Afghanistan.

Two years ago, at only 12 years old, young Mohammad fled his Kabul home in the cover of night with less than $5, his ID card, and a cell phone to catch a flight out of Afghanistan to escape Taliban rule. No matter that his parents and siblings wanted him home, or that he couldn’t read or write, and that Taliban forces had already taken over the airport, beating and even killing Afghans trying to evacuate. It was worth the risk, Mohammad told USA Today. A nation under Taliban rule would make it nearly impossible for his younger siblings to get an education and achieve their dreams of being a teacher and a doctor. “I wanted a good life for them,” he said. 

Mohammad’s story seems to signal a promising new era. For him and other Afghan children and teens arriving by themselves, a special office in the state department was set up to seek out family members left behind and bring them to the United States. After two years of being held in federal custody through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and learning how to read, write and speak English and some Spanish, he had a joyous reunion with his parents and most of his siblings. (An older sister and her three children remain in Afghanistan for now; the family is fighting to get them out.) For some other Afghan children seeking asylum in the US, however, the wait may be longer, boding ill for their mental health.

According to USA Today’s reporting, many Afghan children were separated from their families during the violence in Kabul’s airport and sent off to the US without any family relatives or friends awaiting them when they landed. Instead, they’re often placed under care of the ORR, which wasn’t created for long stays, according to Mary Giovagnoli, senior counsel for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense. “Afghan minors have watched children from other countries depart facilities to reunite with family and wonder why they remain behind,” she said. “They inevitably suffer from ‘detention fatigue’ and can feel lost and that their lives are on hold.”  

Chelsea High School aims to ensure teen parents juggle school and children successfully

Bryanna Morales, 18, recently graduated from high school. “I’m really proud of myself…for him, really,” she told the Boston Globe, referencing her young son. “I finally got my diploma.” The achievement resonates differently for her than for her peers; Morales has been someone’s mother since the eighth grade. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it; four years of high school with a kid is not easy,” Morales said. “They made it happen for me.” 

“They” are Karissa Barbosa and Brenda Peña, program liaison for the Massachusetts Pregnant and Parenting Teen Initiative and coordinator of social work at Chelsea Public Schools, respectively.   “I think there’s this stigma…(around) what it means to be a young parent,” Peña said. “People see it as, ‘This is going to hold me back. … I’m not going to be able to successfully finish high school. And that’s not true, it’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to invest, and how you support those students.”

Research suggests that teen mothers experience postpartum depression at a rate twice that of mothers aged 25 and older. In addition, shock from the pregnancy discovery, fatigue that often accompanies early pregnancy, and stress all contribute to diminished mental well-being for teen parents. Together, Barbosa andPeña  support teen parents to ensure that they receive the help they need, from assistance with academics to securing resources like child care, housing, physical health care, and mental health support. 

The pregnant and parenting teen initiative ran in Chelsea Public Schools from 2010 to 2020 with federal dollars, and was so successful that the district added the program to its own annual budget once federal support ended. Staff’s approach to the students under their charge is hands-on and evidence-based. Barbosa aims to meet with each student once per week, hosts a monthly parents’ group, and monitors their school attendance. She even sits with students waiting for pregnancy test results, accompanies them to doctor’s appointments or visits their home, as needed. “[Ms. Barbosa] was constantly checking in with me,” said Morales. “It’s just good to know that someone who’s not your family is there for you and supporting you and cheering you on.”

Want happier kids? Teach them interdependence

A hallmark of American parenting, perhaps subconsciously in a culture that centers individualism, is to push children to stack up achievements. Though self-sufficiency is good, says Jennifer Breheny Wallace, author of Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic — and What We Can Do About It, forget about teaching kids independence. “We need to teach them a more profound lesson: interdependence — that is, how to rely on others and how to be a person whom others can rely on, too,” Breheny Wallace wrote in the Washington Post.

Why? External rewards like trophies, high-visibility job offers, and good grades don’t engender a lasting sense of self-worth. That comes from understanding one’s value in a community – something that can only be revealed in relationship with one another. It’s a feeling researchers call “mattering,” says Breheny Wallace, and teaching interdependence provides children evidence that they, in fact, matter a great deal.

Ohio teacher Mike McLaughlin illustrates the concept in a writing and reflection exercise with his students. After they make two lists on a sheet of paper, one with everything they’ve done over the past 24 hours that has contributed to their well-being and the other with everything others have done for them, students go back through their lists and reflect. Initially, it appears that they’re just as responsible for their well-being as others, but when they consider the efforts of their teachers, coaches, friends, encouragers, parents, and others, they discover that much of their success is due to the intentional actions of others.

“The point is to plant this idea that they need people,” McLaughlin said, “and that there are people in this world who are going to need them, too.”

In other news…

In case you missed it, check out our MindSite News story on Florida’s Baker Act, which has resulted in 34,000  school children a year traumatized by being seized, handcuffed, and taken by police to a psychiatric ward for an exam and possible treatment without the consent of their parents. For the kids, who may be as young as five or six when they’re held in the facilities, the experience is “terrifying” and traumatic, advocates report. Reporter Josh McGhee contacted Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s office for comment, but did not hear back.

More rules, more problems: Here’s a parenting tip from one teacher’s go-to teacher: ​​“Get rid of the rules.” If that’s too difficult, the mentor teacher advises, “pick no more than three…Write them and discuss them, then enforce them. Otherwise, get rid of them. Let kids make decisions.” What’s the reason? Too many rules limit kids’ ability to develop their own sound decision-making skills, says educator Sean Cassel in Edutopia. “And although kids don’t always make the right choices, often enough they do,” he said.

Pregnancy and poor mental health are linked to preterm births: A study recently published in The Lancet found that women who struggle with mental wellbeing are at a 50% greater risk of entering premature labor. The Guardian reports that researchers analyzed data from more than 2 million pregnancies in England and discovered “a clear link between the severity of previous mental health difficulties and adverse outcomes at birth.” 

Are only children alright? Absolutely, asserts Ashley Simpo in this column for Kindred from Parents magazine. Psychologist and parenting expert Susan Newman spoke to a host of only children between the ages of 20 and 70 for her book, The Case for the Only Child, who told her they felt great about not having siblings. As only children, they reported closer relationships with their parents and said they felt sufficiently provided for. Simpo argues that for Black women especially, making the choice to have more than one child comes with higher concerns about maternal health and mortality.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...