“It’s hard to be a parent tonight for a lot of us,” said Van Jones, a CNN political commentator, as the election returns were coming in in the early morning hours of Nov. 9, showing that Donald Trump was winning. “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,’” said Jones, who is black. “Then you have this outcome, and you have people putting children to bed tonight and they’re afraid of breakfast.”
Weeks afterward, there was still confusion, despair even, among many of the people who were deeply afraid of what a Trump presidency might mean. Trump’s supporters boasted about winning, which was to be expected. But hate speech — anti-immigrant, racist, bigoted rants — was reported as well. This followed Trump’s campaign, which included many anti-immigrant statements, a well-documented mockery of a reporter with a physical disability, and statements urging crowd members to rough up protesters.
As difficult as it was for some people to absorb the results — even Trump’s supporters hadn’t expected he would win — it was even more difficult for children. On Nov. 11, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) gave some advice for how to talk to children about the election. The statement, from Karen Remley, M.D., M.B.A., M.P.H., F.A.A.P., CEO/executive vice president of the AAP, came in response to requests from pediatricians across the country. “They’ve requested advice on how to speak to children and families about the results, how to help each other cope with disturbing rhetoric, and how to explain news reports of protests,” she wrote. “They have sought reassurance that our mission remains steadfast to advance policies that protect all children.”
The AAP is known for being one of the few organizations that exists to further the interests of patients — children and adolescents — above all. “Even as we do everything we can as a national organization to represent children’s needs to our newly elected leaders, it is so important that all children feel safe and protected in their day-to-day lives,” write Remley. “As pediatricians and pediatric medical and surgical subspecialists, parents and grandparents, we can serve as a source of comfort and safety, reassuring children and supporting families.”
Here are some of the AAP’s recommendations for parents:
- Take care of yourself first. Children depend on the adults around them to be and feel safe and secure. If you are anxious or angry, children are likely to be more affected by your emotional state than by your words. Find someone you trust to help with your personal concerns.
- Explain — as simply and directly as possible — the results of the election and what they mean for who is in charge of the country. Start by asking what your child has already heard and what understanding he or she has reached. As your child explains, listen for misinformation, misconceptions, and underlying fears or concerns. The amount of information that will be helpful to a child depends on his or her age. For example, older children generally want and will benefit from more detailed information than younger children. Because every child is different, take cues from your own child as to how much information to provide.
- Pay attention to what your children are viewing on television, the internet and social media, especially younger children. When children watch news on television, try to watch with them and use the opportunity to discuss what is being seen and how it makes you and your child feel.
- Consider sharing your feelings about the election with your child. This is an opportunity for you to model how to react to the news, especially if you talked openly about the potential results as a family in the weeks leading up to the election. Be sure that you are able to express a positive or hopeful approach about the future and be reassuring.
- Share with your child your own values and beliefs, including how you as a family treat others who are different or who may disagree with you. Kindness is important. Teach your child that if you disagree with someone, you can talk with them kindly about the way you feel.
- Encourage your child to ask questions, and answer them directly. Question-and-answer exchanges help to ensure ongoing support as your child begins to understand the response to current events. Don’t force the issue with your child. Instead, extend multiple invitations for discussion and then provide an increased physical and emotional presence as you wait for him or her to be ready to accept those invitations.
- If your child has seen or experienced discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, either from other children or adults, encourage your child to discuss what he or she has experienced. Observing someone we care about being discriminated against, or experiencing discrimination ourselves, is scary, and reminds us that now more than ever it is important to reassure children that they deserve to feel and be safe in their schools, homes, and communities.
- Allow your child to express what he or she is feeling, including fear, anxiety, or anger. Listen as your child talks about it, again and again if necessary. Reassure your child of the steps that are being taken to keep him or her safe. Children should be encouraged to tell a trusted adult, such as a parent or a teacher, if they are bullied or feel threatened.
- Engage in activities with your children that demonstrate your values. Volunteer together at an organization whose mission is dedicated to a cause you care about, give your child ideas about individual actions he or she can take every day to help fight prejudice, and take care to discuss issues of shared concern as a family.
“As we turn to our newly elected leaders, the Academy will continue to advocate for and promote healthy children, support secure families, build strong communities and ensure that the United States is a leading nation for children,” concluded Remley. “We will remain constant in our pursuit of health and well-being for all children. We will be steadfast in our approach of using evidence, policy and our passion for children in our dialogue and discussion.”
Obviously your concerns will be more intense if your child has faced hate speech in school. Teachers have reported that such incidents spiked after the election. As always, advocate for your child. Be sure that the school knows and responds appropriately. Your child is counting on you, now more than ever.
Finally, keep your home life normal. Young children in particular need security, and need their parents to be in control. Do not react or overreact to what you hear on the radio or TV, or see on the internet. It might be a good time to buy an actual newspaper and read it with your child. Older children can learn on their own and keep track of what’s going on in politics. After all, they will be voting soon. Teach them to think for themselves, to not to succumb to peer pressure: there is a sense in middle and high school that bullies carry the day. Not so. Votes are private.
Van Jones’ children one day will see the clip of him almost in tears the night of the election, asking how he could explain the results. Perhaps they already have. They will have had time to adjust to the new reality, and they will not have to harbor secret fears about an unknown threat.