Anxiety In, Anxiety Out

It's March 3, 2017, and Donald J. Trump has been president of the United States for 42 days, and it's been (only) 114 days since he won the election. That's not even the length of two Kardashians! The stress and anxiety levels I see in my family, town, religious community, and progressives everywhere have skyrocketed since that fateful day in November.

What stresses me out even more than the presidency, though, is how it's affecting our kids. How we're letting it affect our kids.

We Set the Stage

This has been an amazing two years. The Republican candidates were a train wreck, and no one -- not the networks, not the newspapers, not the people -- could look away from the carnage. "Get a load of this! A reality TV star running for president!" 

In our family, we watched all of the primary debates and followed along daily as Republican candidates fell like dominoes in the face of the Trump machine. It was a laugh. None of these people would stand a chance against Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, so why take it seriously? And the media kept feeding us, long after we were full. 

CNN, MSNBC, and the rest of the networks spent hours broadcasting empty podiums where Trump was going to speak "any minute now." On CNN, Trump received 78% of the coverage between August and September 2015. By November of that year he had received more coverage the entire Democratic field put together.

It was great for the ratings, but bad for the country, one news executive would say post-election.

There was nothing else to report while this was on screen?
 It's not "breaking news" that a planned event will start soon, by the way. 

We Stoked the Fear

If you're a progressive, think back to how you talked to your children about Trump between August and November of this year, when he was selected as the Republican nominee and when he won. We presented a Trump presidency in the direst of terms:

  • Armageddon
  • World War III
  • death of the environment
  • cataclysmic
  • the fourth Reich
  • the end of women's rights
  • the end of civil rights
  • Hitler-esque
  • catastrophic
  • devastating
  • impossible

I felt free and justified to use all of these scare-words and more when talking to my kids about the upcoming election. It was a warning bell. He'd never be president, but we have to be on the lookout for these kind of people. They're dangerous, and if they get into power, it will be horrifying. But don't worry. It won't happen, so you have nothing to worry about. 

Then Trump won the election and my role immediately flipped. It was my job (my responsibility?) to make them feel safe. I told them the worst-case scenario couldn't, wouldn't happen, and then it did. I regretted ramping up the fear and began trying to talk it back.

Take Their Point of View
My kids are 13 and 15. Old enough to be aware of the news. but not quite savvy enough to figure out what's an important event, what the media is hyping needlessly, and what is trolling and misdirection. 

They seemed to know every Trump tweet (He went after the cast of Hamilton and SNL!), and if CNN and MSNBC are covering something endlessly, it must be important, even if it's not 100% true. Their social media feeds, usually filled with funny cat pictures and senseless memes, were loaded with dire predictions and fear. 

I'm not saying this fear is unjustified. I could go on for days about the way the Trump administration and the resulting mood in the country makes me nervous and fearful. But why are saddling our kids with those same anxieties?

The Day After

If you're my age, you probably remember the 1983 TV Movie Event, "The Day After".  100 million people watched it, and the media hype around it was intense. From Wikipedia, a summary:
The story follows several citizens – and people they encounter – in and around Kansas City, Missouri and the college town of Lawrence, Kansas, 40 miles (64 km) to its west. 
The film's narrative is structured as a before-during-after scenario of a nuclear attack: the first segment introduces the various characters and their stories; the second shows the nuclear disaster itself, and; the third details the effects of the fallout on the characters. 
During the first segment, as the characters are introduced, the chronology of events leading up to the war is depicted entirely via television and radio news broadcasts, enhanced by characters' reactions and analysis of the events.
It was terrifying. Kids of the 60s don't get to claim all of the nuclear war fear. Yes, you hid under your desks during drills. We watched "The Day After". The film felt especially poignant because I was living in Colorado at the time. Which, as you know, is right next to Kansas and the home of NoRAD, which was prominently featured in "War Games," also from 1983.

We lived in ground zero. It was interesting to watch the people in "The Day After" deal with the fallout, but we knew there'd be no fallout for us, just annihilation.

Looking back on the 80s now, it's easy for me to see, while there was a lot of fear  of a nuclear war, the actual probability was low. Sure, Sting could sing about whether the Russians loved their children, too, but the truth is they did, and no one was truly aiming for mutually assured destruction. Deterrence through strength worked. No one wanted to play the game.

But the media capitalized on our fear. 100 million viewers means a lot of ad revenue for the network and big paydays for the producers of the film. So what if some 11-year-old girl in Colorado was terrified? So what if millions of others were, too?

Our Family's News Blackout

I'm a firm believer in the magic of a playlist. I have dozens of them, each designed to elicit a particular emotional response. Bad day at work and need to rage and pound the steering wheel on the way home? Rage Against the Machine right into Black Flag and Metallica. Need to cheer up? Dispatch to Guster to Bob Marley. Time to cry it out? Avett Brothers and Chris Stapleton every time. Spiritual uplift? JJ Grey, Matisyahu,  and some Mumford and Sons.

It's a little bit of a chicken and egg conundrum -- which comes first, the mood or the playlist? It's a toss-up. I can change my mood by switching playlists, or I can set my mood. Happy song in, happy feelings out. Sad songs in, sad feelings out. Feeling spiritual? Matisyahu magnifies it. 

More than we realize, we have the power to control what kind of energy makes its way into our homes. A few weeks ago we started a News Blackout in our house. No NPR in the background while getting ready in the morning, no CNN pundit roundtables even if Anderson Cooper is a cutie, and no "guess what awful thing Trump did today?" chat at the dinner table.

It's wonderful.

Thanks to Netflix, we watch shows like Parks and Rec, The Office, the new One Day at a Time, and marathons of the British Baking Show. Antiques Road Show is educational and guaranteed never to stress them out. 

We listen to a lot more music, and can spend hours doing down the baby elephant video vortex on YouTube. 

My daughter said last week, "Unless there's a bomb coming, I don't really need to know about it."

My political science major, active citizen side kicked in for a few seconds there. Everyone needs to be an educated citizen! Right? You can't tune out the world! That's how we got into this mess, isn't it? 

Well, no. 

As my son astutely noted, "You adults did this. Kids don't vote."

He's right, and they can tune back in again when they want to. It's always there, 24/7/365. 

Be Kids, Just a Little Bit Longer

Being a teenager is tough enough without adding fear and anxiety about national or even local politics. They need to be focused on school, band practice, painting, their friends, and the joy of letting go, having fun, and playing. 

It's not just our responsibility to keep them safe, it's also our responsibility to make them feel safe. That means filtering out some of the world and not letting it into their lives.They don't benefit from our anxiety, no matter how justified it is. They feed off it and they internalize it. 

I also want my kids to avoid despair and embrace hope. Look for the good in the world. It's there, and there are always people working to help others and make the world a better place, make the arc bend toward justice, however slowly. 

And most important, I want my kids to know this:

I've got you. 

1 comment:

linfordramblings said...

You have captured so well what it means to be a good parent in tumultuous times. Thank you. Peace.