Our Kids Are Listening: Election Results and Rhetoric

My office phone has been ringing lately. A lot.

It’s been a while since parents were quite so worried about the impact of media coverage on their children’s mental health. The numerous calls I’ve received in the last few weeks have been predominantly about the election. While there have always been two sides in an election and a large percentage of voters explaining to their children why one particular candidate won, or lost, that is not the substance of the calls I’m getting. These calls are not about politics per se. Rather, they are about how to explain to children what feels like an unraveling of the country to many parents.

This is not a political piece. But it is about how to handle the type of distress that children are feeling, communicated by peers, parents, and the media. Two recent examples from parents feeling at a loss as to how to respond:

  • A four–year old girl wakes up on November 9th, and wanders into the kitchen, trailed by her teddy and her blanket, and asks her father, “Did the girl win?” When her father says, “No, the girl didn’t win,” she disappears into her room and reappears a few minutes later with a small suitcase. Her dad asks why she has a suitcase and her reply is, “Mom said if the girl didn’t win, we’d have to leave.”
  • A mom reports that as she tucks her six-year old biracial child into bed a week after the election, he says, with tears in his eyes, “I wish I was white.” Mom had never heard him express this wish and a bit of digging revealed that he was afraid that he would be “sent away.”

Most of us have been through a few, to quite a few, election cycles. My sons are grown now but I remember brief conversations with them when they were young about the president-elect after each election and rather tepid responses to my attempts at conversation. Of course that changed as they grew older and became increasingly interested in the world around them. They began asking questions of their own. As I thought about the parents who were calling me in distress, I realized that, while there were many election results I was unhappy with, I was spared the kind of hateful division that this election has cultivated. My children were spared as well. I’m not immune to the fact that children throughout the world struggle with far greater political fallout than what we have in our country (pull up for a moment the image of any one of the millions of Syrian refugees who are children.) However, this is America and, for the most part, many of our children have been shielded from some of our country’s poorer behavior, poorer decisions.

The two examples used above are intentionally about young children. The reason for this is that while all children are likely to be affected by this election — by the rancor and division — it is young children who have little capacity to understand the flurry of distressing feelings around them. If your child is ten or fifteen or twenty, a conversation is in order. At about age 7, children are just beginning to think logically. This means they can use their experience and think about the future in a way that a younger child cannot. By the time children are about 11 years old, they can think both logically and abstractly. In effect — while lacking judgment and experience — they can think more or less like an adult. But a young child thinks magically, literally, and egocentrically. When mom says “we have to leave,” it’s time to start packing. Metaphors are incomprehensible to young children.

So what helps? As mentioned above, the age of your child is a prime consideration. Short, concrete, and reassuring talks with young children, more detailed talks with middle age children focusing on their concerns and questions, and digging deep with interested teenagers around issues of values, inequality, and class divisions. Don’t make assumptions. Listen and ask questions. Regardless of your child’s age, at least part of their distress is “inherited.” It comes from you, from your own distress (or lack thereof) and your community’s reaction. As with most difficult things involving children, it helps to have your own house in order before helping them tidy up theirs.

Regardless of what side of the debate you fall on, children need to know that they are safe, that there are adults in charge and that yes, you have feelings one way or the other about how the election went. Kids are great readers of their parents’ state of mind. Expressing your own disappointment or enthusiasm is appropriate as long as it’s done in a respectful, thoughtful manner keeping in mind your child’s ability to understand.

You can also see this moment as an extraordinary educational opportunity to educate and engage children with the messy realities of democracy. Stay away from polarizing rhetoric as it only frightens kids and teaches them nothing. For many families, this election was very much a family affair, more so than in any election I can remember. Family is home base for children. Research tells us that the more media exposure we have, the more likely we are to feel personally threatened. Protect children, especially young children, from the media. Reassure them that their security is not threatened. While it has felt like this election has been drawn in black and white, it is far more complicated than that. Educate your older children about diversity, respect, democracy, the bifurcation of our economy, the checks and balances of our system, etc. And, whatever your position, when all is said and done, do something. There is little as reassuring to children as seeing their parents active in a cause. Activity is the antidote to helplessness. An antidote many of us, at this particular moment, are in rather desperate need of.

Madeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.