There are books advising parents on how to talk with their children about death, divorce, illness, sexual abuse and race. But where is the book that teaches Hillary Clinton supporters how to explain to their children that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States?
How do parents teach their children not to bully when a bully has been elected president? How do they teach boys to treat girls and women with respect when the next president has bragged about sexually assaulting women, objectified a 10-year-old girl, called a breastfeeding woman “disgusting," taunted Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly about menstruation, and fat-shamed former Miss Universe Alicia Machado?
“There are those of us parents who are legitimately scared for the physical safety of our families!” Heather Nadine Mackin of Queens wrote in a Facebook group. “What do I say to my son, whose friend has two dads? His friend who is Muslim? To my husband, an immigrant? To my son’s friend who was adopted from Korea and is now terrified he will be ripped away from his parents? ... I have no answers right now. Only tears as I hug my mixed raced son tightly to my heart.”
Mackin wasn’t alone. At 4:00 AM on Wednesday morning, Mary Ausman’s 17-year-old son appeared in her bedroom, weeping. She and her husband, who live in the Bronx, had gone to bed hours earlier, but their son stayed up watching the election coverage. “He was standing over us, just crying. He said, ‘Oh my god, he won,’”Ausman says, her voice tightening as she starts to cry. “He literally crawled in between us. He hasn’t done that in 10 years.”
Later, when Ausman and her husband broke the news to their six-year-old son, the boy burst into tears. “We held up Trump as someone you don’t want to be like. We taught them to be respectful of women, different races, different religions,” says Ausman.
“Someone who epitomizes everything we taught them not to be is the next leader of the free world?”
At 6:00 AM elsewhere in New York City, Shazia Naz Anam’s seven-year-old son woke up, went online and learned that Trump had been elected president. The boy marched straight into his parents’ bedroom and delivered the news. “He was very upset,” Anam says. “Very anxious. He wanted to be held.”
Anam was born in Pakistan and moved to the U.S. when she was two. Months ago, she says her son started having a lot of anxiety about the election. “We don’t talk to him about politics, but he was coming home from school with a lot of information,” she says. “He started telling us, ‘Did you know Trump is going to ship all the Muslims out of this country? Where are we gonna live? What’s gonna happen to us?’ We tried to reassure him that nothing would happen to him or his family. That was a big message: His parents will keep him safe.”
That’s exactly the right approach, says Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City and clinical professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill-Cornell Medical School. “You’re safe,” he says, as if speaking to a child. “But it’s okay to cry.”
What should parents say next?
“Say that Trump is someone who’s a politician, a performer, and like some people who are politicians or performers, they say and do things that we think people should not do. There are famous movie actors and singers who end up in rehab or drive while intoxicated. Just because someone is a celebrity doesn’t mean what they do is okay,” Leahy says.
“This is a teachable moment of epic proportions,” says Denise Daniels, a child and parent development expert whose First Aid for Feelings program and grief workbook helped children cope after the terrorist attacks on September 11. “You will never have another opportunity [like this] to teach kids values and how they impact your actions.”
Parents must understand how to give age-appropriate information, Daniels says. Preschoolers can grasp basic concepts like good and bad, winning and losing, but they’re too young to understand the complexity of the political process. “You really want to minimize their exposure,” Daniels says. “Boil it down to the simplest form. You can say, ‘Mommy is sad today.’ Use it as an opportunity to teach them about feelings.”
“From the toddler’s point of view, the most important thing is to understand that mommy and daddy are upset,” says Dr. Siegler, a clinical psychologist and author of What Should I Tell the Kids? A Parent’s Guide to Real Problems in the Real World, and The Essential Guide to the New Adolescence.
Many elementary school children are more connected to politics than parents might realize. Siegler explains that when talking with school-age children, start with the child’s anxieties. “‘What are you really worried about?’ is the way you open that conversation,” says Siegler. “Not, ‘Oh don’t worry about that, it won’t affect you.’”
If you’re at a loss for what to say, Siegler suggests something like this: “I understand that Donald Trump has said horrible things about people to get elected, but we’ve had many presidents and some were very, very good and some were very, very bad. The important thing to remember is we’re a democracy. Donald Trump is not a king. He’s not a dictator.”
Teenagers are old enough to get it. All of it. They’ve been following the election, maybe knocking on doors or volunteering at a polling site. And so they may have tough, sophisticated questions parents need to prepare for.
Explain that there’s a time limit on the Trump presidency, too. Point out that, in four years, your 14-year-old will be old enough to vote. And if you don’t know how to answer a question, your out is simple: That’s an important question. Let me think about it.
When Carolyn Lanzetta’s two daughters ran into her bedroom this morning to find out who won the election, she burst into tears. “I was unprepared. It was on the fly,” says the CEO and Co-Founder of Plum Print, a startup that turns kids’ artwork into custom books. “I sat with both girls and hugged them tightly.” Her eight-year-old said, “Mom, we’re never going to have a girl president,” and asked if her family would have to leave the country. Then she fell silent. Lanzetta’s five-year-old said, “I don’t understand who wanted him president. He’s not a good man.”
Ten minutes before taking the girls to school, Lanzetta and her husband sat down with them and explained that even though they live in a country where everyone has a voice, their beliefs don’t always win out. “We told them that being American means that we have the freedom to voice our opinions today just as we did yesterday. And that no one could take that away from us. We told them while government is important in America, our family is the single most important part of our lives,” she says.
Then they did what Siegler says is so important: They focused on the future and made a plan for what to do next. “We said as a family, starting today, we're committed to standing up stronger against bullies, to being kinder and more inclusive every day to people who are different from us and most importantly, we work our tails off to prove to the world that girls and women can do anything. We cried together, we hugged, but then we packed up our bags and headed off to school.”