The acrimonious 2016 presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton may be fabulous for cable news ratings, but it’s proving to be a challenge when it comes to the emotional well-being of some of our most vulnerable citizens: our children.
As insults fly and bad behavior continues to emerge (particularly the WikiLeaks revelations of constant dirty dealings on the part of the Hillary Clinton campaign) — parents have felt the challenges of not only explaining events to their younger children, but of keeping conversations and discussions with older children on an even keel. (And how do you even explain some of this to kids at all — when adults can barely explain it to each other?)
“Discuss the insults hurled back and forth and ask your children what they think about them. Is it wise to treat people like that?”
Not only has the climate of negativity and backstabbing been disturbing, but any policies enacted by the next president, whoever this person may be — and any future Supreme Court justices who may be chosen — will also have a trickle-down effect for generations to come, potentially degrading an already lax culture.
It’s no wonder many parents are frustrated and even angry about the presidential prospects.
“Parents are anxious that our candidates seem to have many character flaws that we try hard to teach our children not to possess,” said Darby Fox, a child and adolescent family therapist based in the greater New York City area. “It creates anxiety because we say to our kids, ‘Don’t bully or throw tantrums’ — yet our candidates exhibit these undesirable traits.”
She added, “Kids learn through example, so it takes away our credibility if very public figures are getting away with this behavior. This is very frustrating for parents.”
The election angst is already impacting kids. Children are hearing their parents and family members argue about the election, and some have been acting out in response. The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Alabama, reported that the election has emboldened bullies. Teachers have reported that students have taken rhetoric from the political sphere and are using it in the classroom.
When it comes to the psychological well-being of children, how does something like the 2016 election change a child’s perspective toward trust and elevate fear?
Fox shared thoughts with LifeZette in an interview.
Question: Let’s talk in more detail about how the presidential election affecting our kids. What is your sense of what is happening and what is your advice for dealing with it?
Answer: Unless your children are young adults, they should not be feeling stressed by today’s political climate. If they are, then you need to limit their exposure to media. In the last six weeks or so, the campaigns have become so negative and focused on unacceptable behavior that it is not healthy for kids to be watching this.
It undercuts basic moral codes and it is unsettling for children. Kids should be aware there is a presidential election and what that means, but the particulars are better left out.
Q: So how can parents be smarter during this election season, with just days now left before the election?
A: Since kids can sense their parents are frustrated, what is important is that parents go out of their way to explain to their children that it has nothing to do with them. Children think most things are centered around them, so they logically think they could be creating the anxiety they see in their parents. Parents need to be aware of this and watch what they say and the language they use — their children pick up on this. They are like little sponges and they will repeat what they have heard, but they don’t necessarily put it the appropriate context.
Q: How can parents best discuss the acrimonious presidential election with their kids and teens?
A: Parents can use the acrimonious climate as a teaching moment for kids age 10 to 12. Discuss the insults hurled back and forth and ask your children what they think about them. Is it wise to treat people like that? What would they — the kids — do if someone talked to them like that or said things that aren’t true? It’s a great opportunity for reflective thinking.
This builds empathy and awareness in our children. Use this as a perfect example to show kids age 12 and older that what they say or post can always come back to haunt them.
For older kids, discuss the actual topics — emails, immigration, budgets, and taxes. This is a great opportunity to build awareness and get them interested in something other than themselves. Speak directly about how the government works and the possible flaws in our system; if we can only produce two candidates that people do seem to like.
Q: Does the tone of this year’s election affect the future trust our children will have in our democracy? How can a parent navigate the fear some kids and teens have in our country’s future?
A: It is a parent’s job to deflect a child or older child’s anxiety. Be optimistic, but don’t feed into the negativity. Remember, it’s a parent’s job to instill confidence and a sense of responsibility. Discuss how we might participate to make it different. Don’t let your kids feel that this election is a threat to democracy — that is way too much for young people.
Teens and kids should not be overly focused on this. Our government is enormous and we have checks and balances. Instead of being anxious, teach them why it’s important for them to be educated, active participants so that we have better choices in the future.