How To Talk With Your Kids About President Trump's Behavior

Actionable tips for parents.

Posted Mar 31, 2017

Source: CanStockPhoto / maxximmm

When parents ask their kids what they want to be when they grow up, it’s very common to hear, “the President of the United States.” And this is for good reason. Our President is the consummate role model – a world leader, powerful, admired, respected, and holds the highest position in our nation.

What kid wouldn’t aspire to reach the pinnacle of achievement?

That being said, what are our kids seeing or hearing in the media about Donald Trump and the way he is conducting himself? And how do we, as responsible parents, talk with our kids about the often inflammatory behavior we see from the president on a daily basis?

This is really important.

We, as parents, have an obligation to help our kids process information and, in this case, process observable behavior that is troubling to many adults.

Let me begin with transparency. I am not a Trump fan. And, like many who both did and did not vote for him, I was worried about his temperament as not befitting a president. But let me also say, that as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I want to provide useful tips for all parents, in the interest of clarifying what kinds of behavior are OK and what kinds are unacceptable. After all, we need to be standard bearers and moral compasses for our kids.

Perhaps what was most difficult for me, but incredibly important, when writing this was putting myself in the shoes of a Trump supporter—just to help me step aside from my political views and my own emotional reactions to behavior that I have a hard time tolerating. 

With that in mind, I write this in the most neutral way I possibly can. I’m not going to talk about diagnoses. I’m not going to take political sides or talk about policy. It doesn’t matter if you support Trump’s views or not: Behavior is behavior. Period.

And frankly, parents on both sides of the fence need to be concerned about how our kids wrap their heads around what we see and hear in the news, every day.

So let’s look at behavior objectively, and consider how we might talk with our school age kids and teens about Trump with a focus on problematic behavior.

Tips for Parents

General Principles about Complex Conversations

Understand differences between school-age kids and teens. Conversations must take different spins for kids in elementary and middle school as opposed to high school kids.

Younger kids are generally rule oriented, conventional, and approach problems  as black or white, good or bad. They’re more concerned with conformity, acceptance and are rather rigid in their thinking. So talking with them may be more oriented to how one ideally “should” behave.

Teenagers are more able to think abstractly. They see nuances in behavior, understand intentionality, and can reflect on the context in which emotional reactions and behavior occur. They’re more able to understand strategy, higher level moral principles, and the complexity of human behavior. Their conversations may involve use of alternative approaches, and thinking about the underpinnings of behavior in terms of self-esteem, defensive postures, or professionalism. Naturally, these conversations can take you to more theoretical as well as down-to-earth discussions.

Check your emotions at the door. When talking with your kids about the President’s behavior, please take stock of your own emotional reactions. Whatever your political biases, let’s face it: Most of us are angry, stressed, frustrated or anxious. Kids often hear our “music” and pick up on our emotional state over the content of our conversations. We need these conversations to be the opposite of what we are all seeing on the TV or on social media – high emotional tone, if not outright attacks. Our mission is to explore their reactions, calm things down, and reassure our kids that things will be OK. This can never be accomplished if they see us as emotional train wrecks.

Avoid policies and focus on behavior. The focus of these conversations is not about policies—it’s fine to have strong views on policy—it’s about behavior. It may be useful to ask your kids whether their esteemed parents, teachers, coaches, older siblings, or friends would act like this in the face of conflict. How would it make them feel these people behaving negatively? Would they trust them?  And perhaps more importantly, wonder with them about how one should behave to achieve specific goals. For example, if you objected to a school or athletic policy, how far would you get by angry tweets or yelling at school officials?

Begin your conversations with open-ended questions. We all know that our kids have seen the President on TV and through digital media. Please don’t make assumptions about how they are reacting. Rather, ask them, What have they seen? What have they heard? What do they think about Trump’s behavior? How does it make them feel? The answers might surprise you. Also, ask what they’ve seen in your behavior, and what they think about that. Try to ask this in a calm, non-judgmental manner. Any productive conversation must begin with understanding how your child is processing the information coming to them.  

Welcome their questions. Kid’s always have questions. Ask what they’d like to know or understand. A very useful approach is to ask your kids what advice they would give the President in terms of his behavior. Could he do things differently to achieve his goals?

Conversations about Specific Behaviors

With these principles in mind, find a good time to talk with them – a time when you really have their attention. This may be at the dinner table, driving in the car, or just sitting around in the living room.

Here’s what we all have seen repeatedly in the media, which are also behaviors that we may see in our own kids and families.

  • Deliberately misrepresenting the truth  
  • Bullying and mocking others
  • Being easily Influenced by the negatives motives of others
  • Needing to be the center of attention
  • Failing to take responsibility for misbehavior
  • Defying rules and authority
  • Acting thoughtlessly and impulsively
  • Seeking revenge and retaliating when slighted

For each of these behaviors, ask your kids to:  

  • Consider what they’ve seen and where
  • Describe specific examples
  • Ask what might motivate these behaviors
  • Wonder what might have been done differently
  •  Consider alternatives that would be more effective in achieving  the President’s desired outcomes

There may be some common themes you might find.

For example: The president tends to take things very personally and is overly concerned about his image. While it’s important for leaders to be mindful of their appearance, some people, in the heat of the moment, act in impulsive or self-centered ways, and lose sight of principle and fail to see how their actions can hurt others. This process may backfire and ironically blemish themselves.

If you hit on something important like this – something that resonates with them, don’t let the conversation drop with a simple observation or answer. Go for depth and keep talking.

Finally, move away from talking about Trump. Turn the focus around to talk about your kids’ behavior and the similar kinds of behaviors they’ve seen in friends, siblings, parents, and others around them.

And please, remember that talks like this are ongoing and not one-shot deals. They’re more a marathon than a sprint. I only hope that you can get them started.

Most kids, like us adults, are deeply troubled by the climate in our nation right now. Above all, remember that the objective of these important conversations is to help us—both kids and parents—increase self-reflection and enhance our humanity and civility during this very unsettling time.

Dr. Beresin is Executive Director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School