Ever since the crushing disappointment of Donald Trump’s election victory, I have been glued to social media, hoping to find solace among friends and ideas about how to move forward. One thing I have noticed: A lot of parents have been posting about their kids.
Posts from parents of nonwhite, gay, and non–gender conforming kids show they are terrified of what their children might soon endure because of the animus Trump and Vice President–elect Mike Pence have expressed toward racial and sexual minorities. White parents, too, have been struggling with how to explain to their kids that their country elected a president who has rallied against values they have framed as synonymous with human decency. I reached out to more parents, asking them to share their most burning questions. Many were heartbreaking.
I shared the most difficult questions with nine child, social, and educational psychologists and asked for advice. Here’s a summary of what they told me.
We’ve told our kids Trump is a bad guy. But we have friends and family who voted for him. How do we help our kids understand that conflict?
Kids tend to think in black-and-white terms—this person is bad or dumb or mean, but that person is good or smart or nice—so it can be tough for them to accept that Grandpa is not a bad person if he voted for Trump. And it’s going to be extra hard for them to make sense of it if you are still trying to figure out whether Grandpa is a bad person because he voted for Trump.
But no matter how you feel, you can use the situation to teach your kids about human complexity. You can say, “You know your uncle and your grandfather, and they’re not hateful people, but for whatever reason they were able to overlook the hateful things that Trump did and said because of other concerns,” explains New Jersey–based clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author of Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids. Several psychologists suggested that parents not refer to Trump as a bad person, but as a person who has done bad things and has bad ideas, which underscores the idea that people can be multifaceted. Encourage empathy in your kids, too, by asking them to put themselves in other people’s shoes. As a way of explaining a Trump voter’s economic motivations, say, “If you were somebody who was working hard and your expenses kept going up but your pay didn’t, and that happened for decades, how would you feel?” Kennedy-Moore says. These can be helpful frames for kids even if you don’t buy into this way of thinking yourself; when it comes to children, “it’s not useful to characterize half of our country as hateful racists and misogynists,” Kennedy-Moore says, especially when that group includes people our children love.
You can, however, still explain to your kids why you don’t agree with Grandpa’s vote, and you can cite the election outcome as a reason for you and them to rally for change. “My answer to my children is, ‘We have a lot of work to do, a lot of education to do—because what this showed us is that at least half of the population doesn’t share certain values to the extent that we do,’ ” explains Ron Avi Astor, an educational psychologist at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
What do I do if my kids’ classmates tell them that they aren’t welcome in this country anymore?
If your child is harassed or bullied, “notify school administration immediately,” says Carrie Castañeda-Sound, a psychologist at Pepperdine University’s Aliento, the Center for Latina/o Communities. “You are empowering yourself by not feeling hopeless or helpless, and you want to make sure your kids are safe.” Explain to your children how federal civil rights laws protect them from this kind of hate speech. Maybe practice a script and create a plan for them so they will know what to say and do if it happens again. (Here’s more information on what people can do when they are bullied or become victims of hate crimes.)
Fantasy Lozada, a developmental psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, adds that parents of nonwhite kids should talk to them about their racial heritage in a balanced way. This “includes giving your child messages about being proud of her ethnic and racial heritage and features and telling your child that she is special, loved, and valued—but also letting your child know that there will be people that may treat her poorly or differently because of her race,” she says. Even if your kid hasn’t yet been victimized or bullied, Lozada says, chances are at some point she will be, and it helps to prepare her. You want to give her a “tool belt full of ways to examine her experiences of racial or cultural discrimination and to ultimately be able to say to herself, This isn’t because I am a bad person and no one likes me; it’s because this person has different beliefs or views than me and my family. This is not my fault.” (White parents should also talk to their kids about race at an early age, as I explained in a previous column. The idea that if you don’t bring up race your kids will grow up “colorblind” is a dangerous fallacy—avoiding the topic will instead solidify prejudices that start to form during the toddler years.)
Educate your kids, too, about the history of our country and the richness of its diversity to help them understand that they are not alone. Yvette R. Harris, a developmental psychologist at Miami University in Ohio, recommends the books Black Is Brown Is Tan and The Family Book, which celebrate different types of families. “It’s a time to teach our children what an American family is,” Harris says.
How do I respond to my 10-year-old daughter when she reports that she heard that our president-elect “says that he can do things to girls and women’s bodies without them saying it’s OK”?
“Let’s be clear with our daughters: Their bodies are their own. Start at a young age talking to your children about their bodies, space, and privates. Be open and clear that no one may touch them without their permission,” says Meghan Walls, a pediatric psychologist at Nemours Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. And “reassure your kids that most people—especially most well-respected men—don’t feel this way and that they shouldn’t tolerate this kind of touch from them without their permission.”
It can also help, albeit indirectly, to educate your daughters about sexism and feminism. Campbell Leaper, a developmental and social psychologist at the University of California–Santa Cruz, and his colleagues have found that women who learn about sexism and feminism at an early age are more likely than other women to proactively respond to sexual harassment by reporting the incident, confronting the perpetrator, or saying No! I don’t like that. Young women who know little about feminism, on the other hand, are more likely to do little or nothing when they are harassed—and that’s a problem, because “we know from research on stress and coping that proactive coping strategies are much more beneficial for people in terms of reducing stress and promoting mental health,” Leaper says. Put another way: Educating your daughter about feminism may make her more resilient if she is ever sexually harassed or assaulted.
How much should we let our kids see or know about the things Trump says? I’m torn between shielding my kids from Trump’s ideas and exposing my kids to them as a springboard for discussion.
It depends on the child’s age, temperament, and maturity level—and only you can judge that. For many younger kids, political discussions and television news can be too emotionally charged and scary, so parents may not want to expose them to much detail. (Keep in mind, too, that they’re often listening when you don’t think they are, so be careful what you say when they’re around.) In general, “if they don’t ask about politics and seem completely happy not to talk about it, you don’t need to bring up Trump’s shortcomings or negative press,” Walls says. “You can certainly talk about topics important to you—inclusion of people who are different from you, inclusion of women, respect for others—without bringing up Trump specifically. This alleviates the ‘fear’ factor related to the presidency while allowing you to talk about what matters.”
But with school-age kids, who may be hearing unsettling things from their peers, talking about current events might actually ease their anxieties. It’s far better for your child to shape his understanding of reality from your thoughtful, careful framing than from the skewed, inaccurate stories he hears from peers. “You absolutely want to be a part of this conversation with your children,” Lozada says. “They need your help in making sense of this very confusing and possibly scary time.”
Follow his lead: If your son asks you a charged question and you aren’t sure how to answer, first probe him for details to figure out what he’s really asking. “Say, ‘What do you mean?’ or ‘What did you hear?’ ” suggests Tovah Klein, a child psychologist at Barnard College. “Hear what they’re saying before you come in with information and really think about how much information you want them to have.” If you know something is bothering him, but he won’t open up completely, try to engage him without putting him on the spot. “One of the things you can say is, ‘So, did anything happen today that was funny or good or not so good? Or is there anything that worries you or anything you’re thinking about?’ ” Klein suggests.
If you do want to let your kids watch the news or other political shows, watch with them, Harris says, so that you can unpack complex or uncomfortable concepts. Or let them watch the news on websites that cater to kids, such as Here, There and Everywhere or Time for Kids. If they’re old enough to use social media or browse the internet, talk to them about how they can judge the credibility of what they see; maybe introduce them to Factcheck.org. And when bad things are happening, try to frame them as temporary—things that can eventually be changed. “The OMG, the world is over conversation is not helpful,” Kennedy-Moore says. “But I don’t like this appointment at all, I think that works against bringing the country together, and I’m going to call my senator—that’s better. They see us taking care of the problem.”
How do we explain why a highly qualified woman was not elected when we tell our daughters that they can be anything they want when they grow up?
“I would say, ‘This time it didn’t work, but it’s just a matter of time before it does work’—and mention how many countries in the world are, or have been, led by women,” Kennedy-Moore says. “We’re disappointed, but it will happen—it’s just a matter of time.” Consider showing them books about the suffrage movement or biographies of female trailblazers. I Dissent, a children’s book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is great, as is Rosie Revere, Engineer, which tells the story of an aspiring young female engineer.
Consider reminding your daughter of a time when she was struggling to accomplish something, like climbing the monkey bars, but eventually prevailed. Say, “It was so hard, and you said, ‘I can’t do it,’ and yet one day you were able to—and it’s the same thing with presidents,” Klein says. “Women can be president; this one didn’t make it, but you know what? The majority of women voted for her. If you want to be president one day, you can.”
How do we make our kids feel safe when we’re afraid for our own safety?
This is a terrifying time for many people, in part because the future is uncertain—what is Trump going to do? But it’s crucial that we try to manage our fears for the sake of our kids. “Find ways to exhale and take care of yourself so that the anxiety doesn’t overwhelm you, because your children are sponges, and, regardless of age, they’re feeling your anxiety and reading your anxiety—and we really do owe it to them to manage that so that we can help them,” Klein says. Find a support group, reach out to people who can listen or help, unplug from TV or social media if they make you feel worse, or make the time for a quiet walk or trip to the gym. Then, try to find something positive to focus on, “because that’s what you want to convey to your children,” Harris says. This doesn’t mean you can’t tell your kids that you feel scared sometimes—sharing your emotions can help your kids understand that strong feelings are normal—but “it’s about balance,” Lozada says, “about hearing and validating your child’s feelings, preparing them for the possibility that things aren’t always going to be positive and happy, but also letting them know that they are loved, cared for, and that they can count on you to keep them safe.”
If your kids are still scared, Kennedy-Moore says, here’s something you can do together: On the bottom of a piece of paper, draw a stick figure and say, “This is you. Let’s talk about who’s in charge of keeping you safe.” Solicit ideas from your child. Above her you might draw stick figures of mom and dad; above that, other relatives; next, a layer of their teachers; then, police, firefighters, and the Army. Suddenly, your kid sees layer after layer of people standing between her and danger, Kennedy-Moore says, which can be very reassuring.
What if there’s a chance you might actually be deported? Make an emergency plan, Castañeda-Sound says. “Have a conversation with your child: ‘If mom or dad is more than one or two hours late getting home, this is who you call.’ ” If your children are young and ask why, don’t provide scary details—tell them that they will need someone to call if, say, your car or bus breaks down or you get stuck in traffic. Consider connecting with a pro bono immigration lawyer, too. “We have to consider the possibilities and plan for them, and then we have to come back to the present,” she says.
And even if you’re terrified, find ways to comfort your kids. Point out, for instance, the Los Angeles police chief and many other officials have said they will refuse to help Trump deport immigrants. “There are many Americans committed to making sure that all kids are safe in our schools, communities, and homes,” says Dorothy Espelage, a psychologist at the University of Florida at Gainesville who studies bullying and harassment. Our kids need to know that we will fight as hard as we can to protect them—and that many other Americans will, too.