Children are not adults.
We know that sounds like a simple concept, but we think it’s easy to forget it as adults wade through the effects of post-election stress.
We take on the burden of the implications of the presidential election results, talking with co-workers, friends, and family and trying to hold it together when we enter into a heated debate.
But what about our kids? Though they may not be able to wax philosophical about the implications of a Republican-controlled Congress, they do feel the tension and stress around them – they know something’s up, if not simply because your moods have changed and transformed over the past month and a half.
They also see things on TV. Our televisions flash images of Trump supporters celebrating their candidate’s election, while at the same time showing protests packed with signs like, “He’s not my president.” These images can create a lot of confusion and chaos in a child’s mind.
And as the current election season unfolds, our kids will continue to experience the effects of post-election stress just like we do. How will you handle their questions, concerns, and emotions?
Rather than dispense our own opinions on the matter, we thought it was wise to talk with psychologist Dr. Deb Sandella, founder of the Colorado-based RIM Institute and someone with whom we talked for an article we wrote about how adults can deal with post-election stress.
Our conversation with Dr. Deb covered preschool-aged kids, grade-school kids and high schoolers.
Helping Pre-Schoolers Through Post-Election Stress
Our toddlers and preschoolers aren’t political experts, but they are experts in watching our body language. They tend to interpret our emotions as an indication of how we feel about them.
So, if we feel frustrated or sad about the elections, our kids can interpret that to mean we feel sad or frustrated about them.
“What really matters with our youngest ones, as it relates to the election, is whether or not we’re still grumpy or upset about it,” Deb told us. “If you are still upset or a bit grumpy, what’s important to do with young children is reassure them that your mood has nothing to do with them.”
Affirm Your Love for Them
What’s the best way to approach that affirmation? By being honest and straightforward about how you’re feeling and how it’s unrelated to your love for your child.
“Say things like, ‘Mommy is still grumpy about what she saw on the news but it has nothing to do with you. No matter how I feel, I will always love you,’” Deb said.
Lest you should think that your young children are oblivious to your moods, Deb says she often talks with clients who are struggling with unconscious memories they have from their early development.
“It’s more of a sensing of a memory than a concrete one,” Deb told us. “It’s just amazing what kids can pick up on. They soak up our moods.”
Younger Children’s Stress Is Expressed Physically
And how do those moods, if left unresolved, reveal themselves in our children? Physically.
Because younger children don’t have the vocabulary to articulate how they feel, they often use their bodies as a way to express how their inner state.
Is your child acting unusually frustrated or aggressive after you debate with your spouse or a friend about politics? It very well could be related to your post-election stress.
“When you see kids really misbehaving more so or more frequently it’s an indication that there’s something going on emotionally inside them,” Deb said. “It doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing … they actually don’t know.”
Couple that with their inability to fully express how they feel, and things could get pretty dicey. So, Deb says, reinforce your love for them. Then, give them a chance to resolve their frustrations through physical activity.
But not just any physical activity, Deb said. The key is to have your kids doing a something where their hands cross over the mid-section, like pat-a-cake.
“Involving the body in diffusing a child’s intense emotions is extremely helpful,” Deb said. “Doing these things feels like playing, but it’s actually helping to alleviate those acute emotions your child is feeling.”
Helping School-Aged Kids Through Post-Election Stress
Once your kids are old enough to go to school, they’re introduced to a new world of opinions that includes the thoughts of their teachers and their group of friends.
Consequently, they’ll probably get just as much – if not more – news and information about the elections and the new president from school as they would at home.
On top of that, school-aged kids are far more advanced than they were in their preschool/toddler years, which means they have the tools to verbalize in a clear way about how they’re feeling.
Be a Compassionate Listener
But, Deb says, if you don’t focus on listening to how your child’s day went, you could lose valuable opportunities to help them talk – and feel – through what they’re experiencing post-election and pre-inauguration.
“You want to start very early on developing communication about what’s happening at school and during their day,” Deb said. “You want them to know you’re willing to care and listen compassionately without jumping to action or trying to fix it.”
Part of this means foregoing that natural inclination to interrogate your kids about certain events or feelings, a tactic that will surely backfire. Instead, opt for what Deb calls “compassionate listening.”
Ask good questions. Truly listen to their responses. Agonize with them and grieve with them. Share their fears.
“Compassionate listening creates safety,” Deb said. “Once your children start having an experience of safety when they talk with their parents, that carries on throughout their lives and it really works.”
Emotions Are Linked to the Body
But listening won’t necessarily alleviate your child’s anger, frustration or stress. To do that, you’ll need to help them pinpoint and verbalize their emotions. To illustrate this, Deb gave us an example from her own life.
“I was talking with a substitute teacher in an inner-city school in Chicago and there was a lot of fear from black students about what would happen to them now that Donald Trump is president-elect,” Deb said.
Deb shared with the teacher a method she uses for people who may not be able to properly express their emotions with words:
- Ask them to give you a word the describes how they’re feeling.
- Then, ask them where they’re feeling it…Gut? Heart? Head? Get them to be specific.
- Ask them to imagine themselves being in that part of their body.
- Talk about what it’s like to be in that part of the body.
Kids are more body-centered and intuitive than adults, Deb said, so having them enter the area of the body where they’re feeling their emotional pain is an effective way of helping them deal with their feelings.
“It’s so simple, but because we’ve been afraid of anger and those kinds of feelings, we are afraid to go into that part of the body, but that’s how our emotional-organic system works,” Deb said, “By living in this fear, we’ve allowed ourselves to stay away from feelings instead of embracing them where they are.”
As kids work through these body-centered emotions, they’ll start to feel the negativity diminish and positivity will increase.
Approaching Race Issues
Also, Deb said, be prepared to talk about race since the topic is at the forefront of many discussions this election year.
Fear and anger are feeding the rumor mill, so much so that she heard of one situation in which a rumor was being spread at a school that classes would be separated by race.
As adults, we know those rumors are false; it’s not really a concern. But for children of color, Deb said, hearing things like that causes anxiety and fear.
“There is a risk that it diminishes their self-image and self-esteem merely because of their race,” Deb said. “It can give them a kind of self-image that they’re somehow not as good or as smart or less capable, that can certainly have long-term effects on academic performance.”
In situations where outlandish rumors are flying around, it’s best for parents to squash them by telling their kids those lies simply aren’t true. Talk with school administration about the rumor, then tell your child you’ve talked with people at the school just to confirm the rumor is false.
From there, Deb said, it’s important to ask your child to repeat back to you what they heard.
“When a person reflects or re-speaks what we’ve said, then we know they got it,” Deb said. “I use this technique a lot with consulting and people and relationships; it’s shocking how often people haven’t heard what you said or misinterpreted it. Just that alone is a huge step that can eliminate fear and anxiety.”
From there, if the rumor is race-related, it’s crucial to have your child describe what it’s like to be a student of color in their classroom. Let them talk it out.
“Don’t jump in and reassure them too quickly…let them speak,” Deb said. “Let them pour the feelings out before you reassure them.”
The act of using our spoken words to describe our feelings is part of the process of healing; we find bits of understanding the moment we speak out, Deb said.
“We aren’t trying to stop them from having their feelings; it’s the opposite,” she said. “We’re helping them process and digest their feelings in a healthy way.”
Helping High School Kids Through Post-Election Stress
By the time your child gets to high school, they’ve entered the big leagues of free thinking. There’s a good chance they’ll have not just their own emotional reactions to the election, but their own political positions and opinions.
This new territory leads to all sorts of questions: What if their politics conflict with their parents’ politics? What if they espouse dangerous or odd ideologies? How do you talk with them about the elections while avoiding an all-out political debate?
“They are much more verbal and some are much more rebellious,” Deb said, “so it’s a little bit more challenging in a different way.”
Pick the Right Setting
A direct – but not controlling – approach works best here. But, that direct approach needs to happen in the context of the settings where your son or daughter feel most comfortable.
Deb’s son, for example, is more comfortable talking to her while he’s with a group. Her daughter, on the other hand, prefers to have one-on-one conversations.
Allow Freedom of Thought
Once you establish the best scenario for the conversation, remember what a parent’s job is in relation to your son or daughter’s developing ideologies.
“As an adult and parent, it’s really our job to create a safe environment where our kids can develop thoughts and feelings and not dictate those things for them. They need to have their own ideas,” Deb said. “We need to be able to set aside our own gratification and allow ourselves to listen to them.”
Second, we have to come to the realization that there’s a lot more freedom of thought these days. Just because a student’s parents are Democrats doesn’t mean he or she is a Democrat, and vice versa.
Have Dialogue, Not Debates
Once those mindsets are in place, we need to approach political discussions as dialogues and not debates.
“My belief as a mental health professional is that kids get to have their own thought and their own beliefs, and it’s okay to have a dialogue about them,” she said. “I think dialogue is always useful.”
And don’t let your fear get in the way; just because you’re allowing your children to think freely doesn’t mean they’re going to go off the deep end.
“We need to contain our fears and allow them to have their own ideas because, in the end, we won’t have any control over it,” Deb said. “Be patient and be able to dialogue, and always remember to love them and make it clear that you still love them.”
Bottom Line on Post-Election Stress in Kids
How you handle the stress your kids are feeling as a result of the election differs based on how old they are.
Toddlers and preschoolers don’t necessarily have the verbal ability to express exactly how they’re feeling, so remember to lead them in some exercises if you sense they’re stressed out.
Also, it’s important that you reinforce to them that your anger, frustration or stress has nothing to do with them and that you love them.
For school-age kids, the plan is a little bit different. They’re more capable of talking about their feelings, so in-depth conversations are possible. Remember to have a compassionate ear when they talk, and don’t be too quick to reassure them. Allow them time to explain their emotions.
However, if your child isn’t quite able to talk about their feelings, ask them to identify where they’re feeling sadness or stress. They can feel a lot of relief simply by approaching their emotions instead of hiding from them.
High schoolers are a different breed, but the principles are still the same. During your discussions about the elections, allow them to express their thoughts and ideas whether they agree with your political positions or not.
In the end, you won’t have much control over their political beliefs. As hard as it is not to be afraid of what they might end up believing, give them the space to think freely.
The goal for any child, Deb told us, is to allow emotions to be expressed and understood.
“These are the future generations,” Deb said, “and we don’t want them to have wounds and scars.”