This past Tuesday, a teen patient of mine, who happens to be of Asian descent, said to me, “You’re probably voting for Trump. You’re the enemy.” Surprised, especially considering we’re smack dab in the middle of liberal Los Angeles, I said, “What makes you say that?” She said, “Because you’re white.”
I was shocked and saddened. At how people of color (and other historically discriminated-against groups) might be feeling marginalized at the moment, at how this election has sown seeds of mistrust and feelings of separatism. But at that point we still didn’t know Trump would be leader of the free world by the end of the day.
Yesterday, one day after the election, I heard the same story from two teachers at different schools in Colorado. They each said their Hispanic students were crying in class, worried their parents or relatives would be deported. One was a kindergarten teacher, the other 5th grade. The latter said her students were asking each other anxiously, “Were you born here? Were your parents born here?” These are 10-year-olds. Regardless of where your political alliances lie, this has to break your heart.
So I asked a middle school teacher here in LA County if she was hearing anything similar. Here’s her reply:
“Yes. It was a very hard day. Kids are very afraid that they or their parents are going to be deported or that the Great Wall is going up and they will not be able to see family members. My eighth graders want to create a country called “Afrixo” where only Africans and Mexicans can live. One…boy was crying very loudly in the hallway while an aide tried to console him. He was just so upset he couldn’t control his emotions.”
I asked her if the administration gave the teachers any guidance on how to manage all this. She said no. (Not that I’d expect them to since the election outcome caught us all by surprise, but considering that here in Los Angeles the LAPD was prepared for riots, you’d think it might have occurred to someone at a higher level that the election results could spark intense feelings in children.)
Meanwhile, this morning on NPR, I heard a story on a school in Santa Ana Unified—a district where Hispanic children comprise the majority—where apparently several groups of kids were taunting classmates that their parents were going to be deported. (Here, the school administrators intervened and discussed with the offenders how hurtful this kind of talk is.)
Obviously, kids are acting out. Even the possibility of deportation can ignite an instinctual, intense fear that no child should have to contemplate—losing one’s parents. And the effect can be contagious, particularly for younger children. For example, even if a child’s family situation poses no possibility of such an event, sensing such a fear in friends and classmates can trigger the child to imagine losing their own mom or dad: If this can happen to her, it can happen to me too.
The triggered fear of losing or being abandoned by a parent can be conscious or unconscious. The child may or may not be aware of it, and thus talking with them may or may not elicit such feelings. In the case of bullying dynamics, it’s likely the bully child has their own unconscious fear of abandonment and is projecting it onto others.
Regardless of how feelings are acted out (or internalized) in children, this is a time for us adults to be extra emotionally present when we're with kids. Teachers should try to have constructive discussions and let kids express feelings of grief, sadness, anger, or feeling scared. Ideally, school counselors should be giving talks to the entire student body, normalizing such feelings, teaching tolerance and respect, and creating an open-door policy for kids who want to talk more.
But the most important healing comes from home. Hug your kids. Turn your phone off. Listen to them without interrupting or thinking of all the things you have to do. Be present and spend time with them. Avoid the tendency to rationalize why a child shouldn’t have negative or scary feelings; instead use a combination of empathy and reassurance.
For example, with younger children, something like, “That does sound scary/I can see you’re worried, but everything’s going to be okay. Mommy/Daddy will make sure of that.” For older children, there is obviously the potential for a more intellectual discussion, but again, the same principles apply. It's particularly important to validate adolescents' feelings while at the same time helping them work through them or framing them in a healthier light. One Los Angeles-based teacher from the NPR story above shared that he was is comforting students by explaining the difference between campaign rhetoric and governing, which involves passing laws to carry out policy changes. At every age, bonding, emoting, talking, and spending time in nature can help quiet primitive fight-or-flight feelings.
Last but not least, in the wake of this particularly polarizing election, we adults should all make an effort to practice random acts of kindness—and to teach kids to do the same.
Victoria Dunckley MD is an integrative psychiatrist and the author of Reset Your Child's Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time.