Since the election, many of the psychiatrists and psychologists in our office have reported a wave of anxiety among our patients. These fears have sometimes come from watching television commercials that highlight the faults of the other party or from watching the debates themselves. Children have reported fears of a nuclear war, of being taken away from family, or of being harmed or killed because of racial, religious, immigration, disability, gender, or sexual orientation status. In addition, some children are reporting remarks by peers.
Jane is a 10-year-old girl in a family with two mothers who has been very interested in politics. She had been seeing one of our psychologists for mild separation anxiety. After the election, she was crushed and angry but also extremely anxious that her family would be forced to leave the country. She had difficulty sleeping and was preoccupied with numerous worries about her own family and the state of the world.
How can we support our patients and their parents in responding to this surge in anxiety? First, we can reiterate the central importance of family. What the family models in values, behavior, and coping is central to how children respond to stress and winning and losing. Parents who manage their own emotions model how to cope with both victory and defeat, demonstrating appropriate celebration as well as grief and anger. Coping strategies for parents can include reaching out to supports from family and friends, using relaxation strategies, and then planning practical next steps to take.
Parents should reassure their children that they are there to keep their children safe. Modeling self-care and keeping the family routine as stable as possible is a powerful source of this sense of safety. As always, parents should think about what their children are consuming in the way of electronics.
In talking to children, listening is a first step. Help children find the words for what they are feeling. Consider your own words and the rhetoric of the election. Withering scorn of the other side has become increasingly common and not only damages our ability to understand other points of view and resolve conflicts but is also leading to intense anxiety in our children. The extreme nature of some of these words has led some children to believe that complete disaster is imminent should the other side win. Try to avoid using words that intensify fear. Acknowledge the feelings that children have, but provide reassurance of safety and hope.
Using the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy, a therapist or parent can help a child think through how their thoughts are connected with feelings and behavior. When we are fearful, we often think that the absolute worst is going to happen, or we imagine that we definitely know the future. Sometimes an extreme thought can magnify feelings to the point that constructive behavior is blocked. A therapist might acknowledge feelings, but also help enlarge the child’s perspective. There are many reasons why people voted for or against candidates, and we don’t know everything about them just because of how they chose to vote. Discussing the three branches of government and the system of checks and balances that bring many people together to think over a problem can help a child see that the government is more than just one person. Parents or therapists can talk about protections in the Constitution such as freedom of the press, which allows us to be informed of what is going on. Parents might want to talk about the reality that we are one country, and that the vast majority of people on both sides share many, if not all, values.
Helping a child consider other perspectives isn’t saying that there are no reasons at all for anxiety, but that there are many possibilities for the future, and that a family can think together about what behaviors they want to engage in. There may be specific actions a child or family might want to take to have a voice in how the country moves forward.
Treatment plan for Jane
• Psychotherapy. Continue cognitive-behavioral therapy with a focus on identifying thoughts tied to anxiety that are overgeneralizations or exaggerations. Discuss alternative thoughts with greater perspective.
• Parents. Discuss supporting the child through listening, reassurance of safety, reestablishment of family routine, and family discussion about what actions to take to promote values.
• Health promotion. Discuss using exercise, pleasant activities, mindfulness, and minimizing of screen time as ways to cope with stress.
• Medications. There is no need to use medications for the child’s acute stress response.
1. Psychological First Aid: Field Operations Manual , 2nd ed. (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, National Center for PTSD, 2006).
2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxious Children: Therapist Manual, 3rd edition. (Ardmore, Pa.: Workbook Publishing, 2006).
Dr. Hall is assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont, Burlington. She said she had no relevant financial disclosures.