For the last 22 years, I have been a family therapist, and in that role, I have treated many, many children and teens. In the days since the election on November 8, I have heard from many parents, teachers and others who work with children. What they are seeing in our children in the wake of the tenor of a brutal election season is troubling.
Regardless of the political ideology of their parents, the fear, anxiety and insecurity some children are experiencing is comparable to what I observed during the aftermath of 9/11. Parents describe free-floating anxiety, excessive worry, irritability and many questions. It’s not just kids who are being bullied or who are in a suspect class that may fear discrimination who are experiencing this. It’s also children who witness these acts or merely observe and listen to fear expressed by others.
Children watch television, listen to their parents’ discussions and are consumers of social media. Right now, many are absorbing the anxiety expressed there and may not have the tools they need to process what they’re hearing and seeing.
Here’s the bottom line: right now, children are watching, listening and looking to trusted adults for understanding and support. Here are a few suggestions of things you can do to help your children — and teens — cope. I hope this is helpful.
1) Turn off the TV. A heavy diet of 24-hour news will make anxiety worse. Younger children think very literally. Imagine their reactions when they hear talking heads make provocative statements — or fight with each other. Turn the channel.
2) Talk with your kids. Ask them how they’re doing, what they think about the election, what they are hearing from peers. Have a dialogue. It is the best way to know how they are processing things and a good opportunity to help them separate fact from fiction and clam unrealistic fears. Don’t assume you know what they are feeling — listen.
3) Take a stand against bullying. They may be hearing hateful rhetoric either from adults or peers. Encourage them to talk about it and let them know that bullying is unacceptable — whether done to them or by them.
4) Watch your words and demeanor. Your children will take their cues from you. Remember that little ears interpret things very literally, so if you are on the phone with Aunt Jane, and they overhear you expressing your fear that the president-elect can’t be trusted with the nuclear codes — imagine the fear you are seeding.
5) Focus on the present. Reassure them that they are safe right now, and that you are there to make sure they stay safe. While it is important to be honest, it’s also important to shield children from information they are developmentally not ready to process.
6) Monitor children’s social media. As you know, Facebook, Twitter and all the much cooler platforms kids use are flooded with posts about the election — and often about how we should all be afraid. We should always pay attention to our children’s social media — but especially now.
7) Engage children in constructive activities. To address the things they are concerned about or that you want them to learn about, model productive advocacy yourself. For example, if you hear hate speech or witness discrimination, and your child is present, say something. Especially during the holiday season, there are many opportunities to volunteer to help others. Find something that fits and include your children in the activity. Your actions will speak louder than any words.
Our children are watching the way we deal with the aftermath of one of the most divisive elections in our history. As they do, we can be honest with them, instill good values and allow them to learn the lessons of this election without feeding their fear.