How to talk to your children about the presidential election

America officially has a new POTUS and the path to victory was anything but smooth. The entire nation has been riveted by the contentious presidential race between Hillary Clinton and president-elect Donald Trump which left the country divided. On Wednesday, with 92 percent of votes counted, Clinton and Trump each held about 48 percent of the popular vote.

While many adults are processing their own feelings, whether they are feeling victorious or defeated, children have been watching or listening and may now be wondering what it all means.

Across the metro area, the hallways of elementary schools were filled with children expressing their views. Their comments ranged from those who championed Trump as president to those who thought his victory signaled the end of the world.

As Andisheh Nouraee of Decatur walked his six-year old daughter to school on Wednesday, he had one thing on his mind.

"What I wanted to do with her was shield her from the fear that I felt. We told her that we were sad and that we wanted it to be the other way. But obviously there is no point in a six-year old being despairing about that," said Nouraee, co-author of Americapedia:Taking the Dumb Out of Freedom (Walker, $16.99), a book that uses humor to explain the American political system to teens.

Nouraee told his daughter that school may be a little weird given what some people are feeling and he reassured her that she could always talk to him, her mom or a teacher if there was something she wanted to discuss.

According to some experts, he is on the right track.

"The very first thing to understand is that young children take their cues from their parents. As a parent if you are stressed out and reactive, your own reactions to things play a key role in how your child responds," said Atlanta-based psychologist Betsy Gard.

Gard said parents sometimes forget that, while their children are playing with dolls or coloring, they may still observe and absorb any reactions their parents are having. One important step in helping your children is helping yourself, she said.

Take a break from media coverage of the election, go outside or exercise. And whether you supported Clinton or Trump, take a moment to shift your perspective.

"Take a long-distance perspective as a country. We have been through a lot of things and have been rocking along for hundreds of years," Gard said.

When you are prepared to discuss the election with children, be sure to use age-appropriate concepts and terms, she said.

While you may explain the three levels of government and how they work together to an older child, you should stick to the basics with younger kids. You might, for example, explain that the country elected a president as we do every four years. Explain to a 5-year-old that when he or she turns nine, we will do it all over again.

Parents may also want to communicate to children that some people get excited about a new president and some people get upset. It is a good time to remind them how to be gracious whether they win or lose any type of race.

The most important thing, said Gard, is to offer them reassurance and let them know that you are always available to talk.

"Kids will hear a lot of things over the coming weeks but at the end of the day your words will resonate most strongly with them," said Stephanie O'Leary, a clinical psychologist who specializes in neuropsychology.

For O'Leary, a mom of two, this election also presented a unique opportunity to teach her children about respect. Parents, she said, must model respectful behavior for their children.

"If you are able to share your thoughts and feelings while choosing respectful words then you set the tone that disrespect is not tolerated. If and when your child hears disrespectful commentary, it will register with them and it will feel wrong. It will feel inappropriate. At the end of the day, that's exactly what you want as a parent," said O'Leary.

On Wednesday, she made sure her children were prepared for the school day by sending them off with the understanding that no matter what happens at school, she expected each of them to behave appropriately and to choose their words wisely.

"I told them that I trust they will make good decisions and that I am here for them if they have any questions," O'Leary said.

Engaging your child is a great way to be sure your values are passed on to them. Take walks together or do something altruistic like volunteering in the community.

"The idea is that you have power to make changes in your neighborhood and in your community no matter what happens in an election," Gard said.

In the coming weeks, Nouraee said he plans to do just that. As he left his daughter's school and heard the voices of other parents talking about the election, he offered a hug to a friend.

"It is about recommitting to what it is you believe in," he said. "It means being a good friend or a good neighbor and letting your kids see that."

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone
Nedra Rhone
Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.