Though the recent acrimonious election unleashed anxiety in both adults and children, it was somewhat manageable as there was hope (and expectation) that the negativity would dissipate come November 9th; a hope that helped many parents assuage their children’s worries.
While the prospect of a President Trump as commander in chief is difficult to process for many Americans, it can be particularly hard for young people who have a history of trauma, anxiety or adverse childhood experiences (ACE) even if the trauma has long since passed.
Traumas – “deeply distressing or disturbing experiences” – are not limited to events people may typically think of as “traumatic” such as a devastating accident, sexual abuse or a death.
Depending on a child’s genetic makeup and susceptibility to stress, symptoms of trauma can appear after seemingly harmless events such as a parents divorce, a single instance of bullying or a minor car accident.
It is why one sibling may handle a parents divorce with relative ease while another is devastated.
The present political climate may reactivate anxieties in young people who have a history of adverse childhood experiences that are connected to a number of the issues and fears that emerged during and now after the election.
Particularly vulnerable are young people who have a history of anxiety or trauma related to:
· Sexual abuse
· Witnessing domestic abuse – physical or verbal
· Witnessing or knowing someone involved in a terror attack
· Natural disasters
· Separation, or fear of separation from parents and loved ones (children of immigrants are especially vulnerable)
· A parent’s acrimonious divorce
· Racism, discrimination, bullying or homophobia
· Any event in which they may have internalized the message that the world is not a safe place
If parents or family members openly disagree politically the stress is magnified more than in past elections when the political debates centered around less ugly and potentially dangerous circumstances.
A safe environment may suddenly feel volatile and unfamiliar. A young person who struggled to manage severe anxiety in the past may find the feelings resurrected even if the events (the election and their prior trauma) are unrelated.
Feelings associated with a traumatic experience are stored not only in the brain but in the body. The body retains the imprints of trauma. Symptoms, which can include panic attacks, disassociation, rage, crippling anxiety, isolation, sadness and attention difficulties, can easily resurface when an event or person ignites bodily feelings associated with the original trauma.
In the groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolkhelps readers understand the ways in which experiences play out, often years later, in the function or malfunction of our bodies. Something as seemingly innocuous or subtle as a smell, a sound, a tone of voice or a touch can ignite a visceral reminder of the traumatic event resulting in physical an/or emotional distress.
Nothing about our President-elect is innocuous or subtle. His mannerisms, tone, facial expressions, gestures, reactivity, threats and worrisome cabinet appointments have generated anxieties associated with prior traumas in many adults.
Young adults, particularly children, may not have the cognition or insight to connect their symptoms with current events. If a young person’s behavior has recently changed or begins to change, parents need to be mindful that the stress could be related to the election; particularly if the child has a history of post traumatic stress.
Additionally, it’s important to be cognizant of the fact that a young person may already be struggling with something privately which the election has made more worrisome.
For example, If a child is gay or transgender but has yet to come out, parents may not be able to fully understand a sudden manifestation of anxiety.
If a young person is suffering from anxiety there are a number of things parents and loved ones can do:
1. Listen. Just listen without trying to fix. An acknowledgement of feelings and a hug can be worth more than a “solution.” Allow a child to experience fear, sadness or anger in a safe environment without attempting to make it all go away. Sometimes that’s enough
2. Help them gain a sense of empowerment by finding something to fight for rather than against. Donate to an organization, go to a rally in support of a chosen issue; volunteer in the community to help victims of abuse, immigrants or needy children. Find something through which they can see their efforts at work.
3. Connect with others. Share stories; Even with those with opposing viewpoints. Hearing other people’s stories and having a chance to have yours heard has been shown to significantly reduce feelings of anxiety and anger. Children may fear that everyone who voted a certain way is “bad” and thus the country is “bad.” There are diverse and nuanced reasons why people vote for who they do and it can calm anxieties to understand such reasons even if the same perspective is not shared, Get involved with a story exchange organization such as Narrative 4 that promotes healing through storytelling.
4. If necessary, find a trauma informed therapist; One with whom your child feels comfortable.
5. Look into alternative therapies that have been known to help post-traumatic stress and anxiety. As feeling associated with trauma are not always accessible by talk therapy alone, somatic therapies can offer tremendous relief. These include, Equine Therapy, EMDR, Yoga Therapy, Acupuncture and Massage.
6. Find activities that offer a sense of mastery over their bodies such as karate, fencing, kickboxing or yoga
7. Learn more about trauma and adverse childhood experiences and how to appropriately respond to a loved one who is suffering. Dr Bruce Perry is one of the worlds’ leading specialists when it comes to children and trauma. He and Dr. Van der Kolk’s work can be quite informative and beneficial to both parents and children.