Election Stress Disorder in Young Children

30315818186_09966a7402_zIn a recent speech, Michelle Obama raised the question that’s on the mind of every teacher and parent right now: “What do you think this is doing to our children?”

She was of course talking about the Presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s abuse of women, mocking of the disabled, and threats to ban Muslims and send Mexicans back to

Photo by Jacob Evans

Mexico that the media have covered every day.

Even young children are aware of the hatred, threats, name-calling, and inflammatory tone in the air.

In the First Lady’s words, “This is not normal . . . and it is not okay.” She might have added, “And there are consequences such as increased challenging behavior in children of all ages, including preschoolers.”

Rampant fear

Back in April, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that two-thirds of the 2,000 K-12 teachers it had surveyed were seeing an “alarming level of fear and anxiety” among children of color.

After hearing that Trump would deport millions of Latino immigrants, build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and ban Muslim immigrants altogether, these children—immigrants, children of immigrants, and Muslims—were worrying about what might happen to them or their families if Trump became President.

They worried about being deported, jailed, or attacked by police; about losing their homes and places of worship; about being rounded up and put into detention camps. Even African American students were worrying that they’d be sent back to Africa or that slavery would be resurrected.

Although many of these children were carrying their birth certificates and social security cards to protect themselves, they still cried in class, couldn’t sleep, and had panic attacks. They believed they didn’t belong here and that everyone hated them.

Almost one-third of children in American classrooms have foreign-born parents.

Rise in bullying 

Some children had a different reaction: They saw Trump as a role model, and they appropriated his ideas, tone, and language. More than half the teachers in the survey reported that bullying, harassment, and intimidation were on the upswing and becoming more violent and racist.

Children were expressing more hatred for more people—immigrants, refugees, minorities, poor, people with disabilities, people who are overweight—and were “emboldened” to name-call and to use slurs, insults, and trash talk with each other. Muslim children were being called terrorist, ISIS, and bomber, and one teacher heard a fifth grader tell his classmate that Trump was going to kill all Muslims.

Discussions were quickly deteriorating into shouting matches and fights, and years of bullying-prevention work had gone out the window.

“There’s a sense that if someone doesn’t agree with you, it’s acceptable (even encouraged) to have hatred and anger towards them,” commented one teacher in the survey.

Remember that all of this was reported in April. It is surely much worse now.

What’s a teacher to do?

The young children you see everyday probably don’t know about or understand what we’ve just described, but it is certain that they sense the fear and anxiety that’s all around them.

Maslow tells us that what children most need is to feel safe. Creating a safe place and protecting them are probably your goals as well, because you know that children depend on you to comfort and reassure them.

But if you’re also riddled with fear and anxiety, you may not feel very safe yourself—a state of affairs that will be quite obvious to the children in your classroom.

What can you do?

First of all, remember that you’re not alone. More than half of American adults are feeling stressed by this election, no matter which party they favor, according to the American Psychological Association. (Your condition even has a name: Election Stress Disorder.)

Next, turn your attention to yourself. As they tell us on airplanes, you must put on your own mask before helping others.

Donald Trump has shown us how powerful role models can be, especially for boys, so the best thing you can do is become a calm and positive role model, in control of your own emotions.

Here are some tips:

  • Turn off the television and radio when children are nearby and limit your own use of all media.
  • Tell people who might escalate conflict that you’d rather not talk about the election.
  • Remember to breathe.
  • Be aware of all your personal strengths and abilities, and have confidence in them—you can handle this.
  • Keep a journal and record your thoughts and feelings.
  • If you work with other people, laugh together; support and compliment each other. If you work alone, seek out your peers. Everyone needs someone to talk to.
  • Develop positive self-talk.
  • Cultivate optimism and gratitude.
  • Avoid blame.
  • It can clear your head.
  • Make time to do what you enjoy. Go for a walk; spend time with friends and family.
  • Be sure to vote.

What about the children?

Once you’ve calmed down, it’s time to help the children.

The psychodramatic play area is where they often express their fears and concerns and try to understand the adult world around them. Look out for signs of anxiety such as subtle changes in behavior—a child who normally enjoys the company of her peers is sitting by herself; another may be pacing or just wandering around the room. Some children may be twirling their hair, swinging their feet, or regressing from cup to bottle, or from being toilet trained to having accidents.

Give the children as many opportunities as you can to tell you what they’re worried about. Listen carefully, validate their feelings, and respond before their behavior escalates. Provide them with reassurance and a sense of safety. They may need two minutes of one-on-one time, even a hug. This is when your effort to create a culture of caring in your classroom will pay off.

Talk with the families and encourage them to turn off the news and avoid talking about their concerns when their children are present. At the same time, let them know how important it is to listen and support their children if they’re showing signs of anxiety at home or their behavior changes. Saying “There’s nothing to worry about” when they can see that their parents are upset only intensifies children’s stress.

What do you think?

Have you seen more fear, anxiety, and hurtful or challenging behavior in your classroom in the past few months? Do you think it’s linked to the election? Have parents raised this issue with you?



Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s