As Election Day nears, the intensity of the campaign and level of emotion continues to rise beyond anything remembered. Children are remarkably resilient to all this input, at least on the surface, but one has to wonder what they are thinking and likely worrying about just below the surface.
As Election Day nears, the intensity of the campaign and level of emotion continues to rise beyond anything I can remember. The charges and countercharges have included issues of bullying, racism, lying, tax evasion, and risk of nuclear war. Children have heard each say that the other candidate would be both a high risk and a disaster for the country-and they all will be growing up in our country. These charges and emotions have come through every news channel, television ads, sophisticated social media strategies, and probably have been experienced as tense conversations held in their presence by possibly upset, angry adults.
Children are remarkably resilient to all this input, at least on the surface, but one has to wonder what they are thinking and likely worrying about just below the surface. Of course, this will vary by age. School-aged children may look at all the information coming at them in quite concrete terms. They know about lying, danger, bullying, and discrimination. Elevating these issues to a national disaster and adding the threat of nuclear war will likely raise anxiety. Adolescents will have a more nuanced understanding of these topics because they can think abstractly and see more sides of issues.
What can pediatricians and parents do to help children as the tension builds? I would see this as an opportunity to discuss these campaign issues in an age-appropriate manner. There are many lessons to be learned. What are the family and parental values when it comes to race relations, immigration, bullying, wealth, and poverty? What are the questions children have about these issues? How much power does a president have? What can they do, what limits are there, how long does it take, and so on? Does the family agree with this way of speaking and treating each other? Why does it get so heated? How much is selfishness and how much is true concern about others?
Pediatricians, without taking political positions, can suggest to parents that an open-ended discussion, at dinner or during a car ride, that starts with a question and includes a lot of listening would be a good step right about now. The listening and clarification will ease anxiety and the discussion will make overt some of the family’s values.
Dr Jellinek is professor emeritus of Psychiatry and of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, and chief executive officer, Community Network Lahey Health System, Burlington, Massachusetts. He is also a member of the editorial advisory board of Contemporary Pediatrics.