It is not unusual for election time to cause stress for people. In 2016, the American Psychological Association (APA) reported that 52% of people who were surveyed reported that the election was a source of stress, and in 2020, 68% of survey respondents reported that the upcoming election was causing them stress. It’s not surprising that the election is causing elevated stress given all that we are going through right now. It’s been a stressful year all around. Yet, it is important to pause and think about what this stress represents and what we can do to help children and teens during this election time.
Let’s begin by identifying some specific sources of stress. One source of stress is something political scientists refer to as “social sorting” where people associate ideology and identity with specific political parties. This can lead to increased animosity, with attacks becoming personal. Another source of stress is the length of the election cycle. It feels like it will never end which results in feeling consistently in a state of high alert. This, in turn, can lead to increased anxiety, frustration and feeling overwhelmed. Finally, there are the questions that keep many of us up late at night: Will my vote count? What will my future look like if a specific candidate wins? How will things change or stay the same come January?
Let’s Begin With You
In 2016, psychologist Dr. Stephen Stosny coined the term “election stress disorder” to describe the increased amount of distress calls he and other psychologists were getting. So if you are anxious, upset, overwhelmed or feeling irritable, the number one warning sign of election stress disorder, it’s time to take action!
- Set boundaries on news intake. It can be useful to check in with yourself with a simple question like “What will I do with the information I receive? Then, honestly answer the question. If the information motivates positive action or gives you some peace, then great. However, if it stirs up resentment or anxiety, it may be better to not take it in.
- Set specific times to take in news and stick to these viewing/reading times. This allows you to mentally, emotionally, and even physiologically get ready to receive the news.
- Plan ahead for a ramp up of stress as the election draws closer. Schedule times to engage in de-stressing activities such intentional breathing and time in nature.
- Limit your activity on social media. It’s important to limit the activity of “doomscrolling”- going from one political post to another to another…
- Focus on what is most important to you. When you feel overwhelmed, take a step back and connect or reconnect to causes/actions/people that align with your values.
Now Let’s Talk About Your Children
As if this weren’t stressful enough, Election Stress Disorder magnifies parents' concerns about how their children and teens are processing everything they see and hear. It is a parent’s responsibility (but also an opportunity) to take steps to help their children make sense out of what is going on. Children are like barometers, they know when things are off even if they cannot articulate what is not right. So what can parents do?
- Engage in conversations. Discuss the election process and the notion that it can cause stress. Do this even if your child does not bring up the topic.
- Explain the election process in simple terms. To do this consider using child friendly news sources like Time for Kids.
- Focus on respectful conversation strategies. Share with your children ways to get a point across with words that are descriptive but not negative about another person’s character.
- Have deep discussions about values. It is important for every family to take stock of values from time to time, especially in regards to engagement with these values. Even young children can understand that if you value helping the homeless, you put aside food for others.
- Be aware of your own emotions. Children know when we are being authentic and when we are not. If you are struggling with this election or it feels stressful let them know this and what you are doing to take care of yourself.
For older children (middle school and above), here are some additional things you can do:
- Look at articles with your children and help them distinguish between attention grabbing and meaningful statements.
- Talk about the impact of social media on the elections and ask them what they see on social media.
- Ensure that your teens know the difference between opinion and fact and how to fact check.
- Talk about the importance of being involved in the community/city beyond the election and politics. It is important that the passion around the election extend to other areas of involvement.
Michelle Porjes, Ed.S. is the Director of BJE's Project EnAble, a program funded in part by a generous Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, as a resource for student support services at Jewish day schools.
Managing Election Stress, Psychology Today