Most American adults, whatever their political leanings, are feeling “significant stress” over the presidential race, according to a survey released last week by the American Psychological Association.
And that survey was taken in August, before Republican Donald Trump was caught on tape talking about groping women.
So, with the third and final debate between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton looming – and the possibility of everything from infidelity to fat shaming to secret e-mails to sexual assault coming up — many parents may be asking themselves the same question: Is it safe to let the kids watch?
Parents are not the only ones struggling with this issue. Child psychologists and social workers also are somewhat conflicted — but generally agree it's not appropriate viewing for younger kids. Even some politically astute adults may have had enough by now.
“Debates are for grownups. The purpose and topics of the debate are too sophisticated for kids,” said Katherine Dahlsgaard, lead psychologist at the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “What they’ll notice is who’s fighting and who’s interrupting rather than the message behind those behaviors.”
The Wednesday debate, with a 9 p.m. start time, is on too late for all but the oldest high schoolers, Dahlsgaard said. “Any child in elementary school should be in bed by then. Middle schoolers, too, should be in bed by 10. The debate is not a moon landing or an Election Night return.”
Anita Kulick, CEO of Educating Communities for Parenting in Philadelphia, said that even if kids don’t watch the debate itself, they are hearing about the candidates’ battles and seeing campaign ads on TV that feed the acrimony.
“The commercials both sides are playing, they repeat the language anyway,” Kulick said. “We can’t shield our children from it. That’s why I believe that older children should absolutely sit with their parents and watch the debate.
“Would you rather they let it be interpreted through someone else?”
If that’s the route you take as a parent, prepare your kids for possible displays of vitriol, said Mary Karapetian Alvord, a child psychologist who practices in Maryland. Parents need to be very clear that the debates can be unpredictable.
“The levels of aggression and emotion have been ramped up,” Alvord said. “Some of it is scary.”
In the wake of the previous two debates, several of Alvord’s young patients asked her about sexual assault, profanity used by candidate supporters, and how a president could throw an opponent in jail.
“The kids just can’t interpret,” she said. “It’s all so unprecedented.”
Dahlsgaard, of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, advises that parents do their best to keep a lid on their own campaign-related anxiety, and, when talking to a child about anything related to the election, stay calm.
“In general, parents can relax,” said Dahlsgaard. “Elections come and go, but America is forever.”
Tips for parents: The debate and your child
- Children don’t need to know about a parent’s anxiety, discomfort or dislikes. Grown-up topics should be kept among grownups, said Katherine Dahlsgaard of CHOP. Talk to your children about current events, but don't overload them with adult concerns.
- Stress the need for kindness and respect. If a candidate says something that goes against your family’s values, take a moment to talk about that, said Anita Kulick. Emphasize that children don’t have to like what somebody says, but they do need to respect their right to say it.
- Keep your anger to yourself. Refrain from saying vicious things about the candidate you don’t support. Don’t stoop to name-calling or talk in apocalyptic terms, like threatening to leave the country if your candidate doesn't win.
- Remind children that they are not helpless, said psychologist Mary Alvord. Remind them that in this country we get to vote. If they bring up election-related topics, find a quiet time and place to ask what’s on their mind, and do your best to answer their questions.
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