As Tuesday night wore on and it became increasingly clear that Donald Trump would become our country's 45th president, Democratic strategist Van Jones articulated how the half of America who did not vote for the Republican nominee might be feeling at that moment. He called the results a “nightmare.”
“It’s hard to be a parent tonight for a lot of us,” the former Obama White House adviser said on CNN. “You tell your kids, ‘Don’t be a bully.’ You tell your kids, ‘Don’t be a bigot.’ You tell your kids, ‘Do your homework and be prepared.’ And then you have this outcome, and you have people putting children to bed tonight, and they’re afraid of breakfast. They’re afraid of ‘How do I explain this to my children?’”
Whatever your political beliefs, this year's election battle — covered 24/7 by online news outlets, cable channels and your Twitter feed — was one of the most polarizing and bitter in history. And it ended with a populace that is on edge. Even before the final results, the American Psychological Association said, 52 percent of Americans said the race was a very or somewhat significant source of stress.
Trump's surprise upset over Democrat Hillary Clinton appears, at least anecdotally, to have made the situation worse for many people. Children may be especially vulnerable. Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets are full of reports (some verifiable and some unsubstantiated) about how their anxiety is playing out: kids who are gay or Muslim being too fearful to get on the school bus Wednesday morning. Episodes of bullying in which kids repeated things Trump has said. Children expressing fears about conflict, war and their future.
Daniel Griffin, a psychologist in the Washington area — a Democratic stronghold that supported Clinton — said in an interview that many patients were walking into his office “shellshocked.” Griffin, who has been working for more than 30 years in counseling, said many families are reacting as if they had gone through a personal tragedy and that the first thing he reminds parents is that “kids really do pick up on parents' emotions.” So it's important to put on a positive face.
“Politics is pretty complicated, and their parents' emotional expression is what kids rely on just to say if a situation is safe and manageable or whether it's a catastrophe,” he explained.
Griffin also said that parents need not excuse or minimize behavior or remarks by Trump that don't conform to their value system but could instead explain that how there's a “system of checks and balances” in the country so that the government is more than a single person.
“It's impossible to shield most kids from this, but you should marshal the reserves to normalize the situation,” he said. Explain that we’ve been through many many difficult things in the history of this country “and we’ll get through this one.”
Similarly, Michael W. Yogman, a pediatrician in Cambridge, Mass. and the chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health, said the most important message a parent can give to a child is that “we as adults will protect you.”
“There are democratic processes in this country and institutions that will protect all Americans and not allow bigotry to take over. That includes children with same-sex parents, gay children, disabled children and minority children,” he said, describing how one African American boy came in with the heartbreaking worry that all African Americans might be jailed or deported and wondered what might happen if he changed the color of his skin.
Yogman said that in such situations, parents might consider borrowing from President Obama's morning message about the values at the heart of the American democracy being bigger than whomever is elected.
Griffin advises parents to keep their initial sharing “Twitter-sized,” meaning that they don't need to get into all the details of why they are upset, but to offer some information, watch the child's response and then follow his or her natural curiosity. Young children may have already picked up on a parent's fears that may have translated into their own. For older children, teens or college students, it can help to get others in the community involved as they deal with their feelings.
“Especially around here in Washington, there are a lot of sources. If a child has a strong emotional feeling, they can share some of this concern with other folks over breakfast or dinner or something like that and get other perspectives,” he said.
Another idea parents can emphasize is that even children have the power to make a difference in their lives and in the lives of others. “Children have a choice and don't need to be quiet and live in fear when they feel like something is wrong — whether they are being bullied or discriminated against or mean to,” Yogman said.
Griffin said parents could tell their children that “it’s okay to be vulnerable and have feelings and worries, but here is something you can do something about.”
“It is important for them to know we live in a participatory democracy,” he said. Depending on the issue that concerns a particular child, a course of action may involve things like creating a petition or writing a letter to a member of Congress — or even to the president-elect himself.