The emotional and off-color language of this election season has arguably been unmatched in the history of presidential elections.
LifeZette talked with husband-and-wife child therapists Fred and Laurie Zelinger, who are in private practice together in Cedarhurst, New York. They explained the impact of both the content and tone of this presidential race on the nation’s impressionable young minds.
“Parents can also point out that the candidates are in a sense actors, and they are in a sense onstage.”
Question: What effect is this election season having on children?
Answer (Fred Zelinger): Older children tend to be less respectful of government and less idealistic about who the president is. I remember being younger and if it was revealed that a president had an affair, that person’s image became tarnished in my own mind. We want to believe our leaders are something special. Here, [in 2016,] we see them behave in ways that even normal people don’t behave, and to kids it’s very disheartening and disillusioning. This is part of the diminishing respect for authority, and the overall sense that our leaders don’t necessarily know what they are doing. I think children over time establish that in their minds — and I think it creates a sense of distrust.
Q: So how, in your view, are kids processing the type of vitriol we’ve heard this election season?
A (Laurie Zelinger): The age group that we think a lot of people are worried about this election are the “impressionables” — the younger kids. I think the way to explain to them what is going on is to humanize it. Parents can say things like, “Well, the candidates are people, and they want to get a certain job,” or, “Sometimes people get angry, and they use words that they shouldn’t.”
You can also explain to kids that we have different behaviors for different settings — when they go to church or to their aunt and uncle’s house, they are on your best behavior, but at home, they don’t have to monitor themselves quite as much.
You might say, “The people who are running for election get so angry and so worked up that they’re not always monitoring themselves — and we see them when they’ve lost control. They may regret some of the things they say just like we regret some of the things we say.”
A (Fred Zelinger): Parents can also point out that the candidates are, in a sense, actors, and they are, in a sense, onstage. They’re acting poorly, but they believe that people will vote for them if they act that way.
Q: Kids who have been raised in the age of social media are used to unfiltered dialogue. Are they more immune to this type of rhetoric?
A (Fred Zelinger): They may not be as affected by the rhetoric as we were, say, in the 1950s. Our parents controlled our information back then, and today, parents do not control information. It matures kids early. I don’t think that’s a good thing — many are too young to take in some of what they are hearing … Emotional development is different than just understanding the meanings of the words. I think a lot of kids may know meanings, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to emotionally integrate what they hear. They may be using language that they don’t actually know the meaning of.
A (Laurie Zelinger): There are going to be times when children aren’t familiar with the words they hear. They may be asking the parent to explain it to them, and that’s something that parents need to figure out — how they will do that. Parents should be ready.
“I think a lot of kids may know meanings, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to emotionally integrate what they hear.”
Q: Kids may sour on the political process at a young age. What can we do to help the next generation?
A (Fred Zelinger): That’s a problem. Their whole worldview on politics is that it’s like reality television. I don’t know how many teens actually relate to the importance of the president anymore. They’re very peer-related. And little kids look to their parents to take care of them, so I don’t think they’re seeing the bigger picture yet. They aren’t invested.
A (Laurie Zelinger): Kids may get their election information from a certain source, and we should explain to the kids that the source that they’re getting it from might be leaning toward one candidate or another. They may be hearing exaggerations.
Q: What more can we advise them?
A (Fred Zelinger): “Everything you hear is not necessarily true” — [that] is the lesson. Children don’t understand that sometimes [you] have to do your own research. They believe what they hear. And teenagers, don’t forget, are developmentally disrespectful. And I think that this type of adult behavior on the national level sort of validates their feeling of, “These guys don’t really know what they’re talking about.”
A (Laurie Zelinger): Teens will giggle over it. And some of that behavior is what they wish they could do — but wouldn’t dare.