HACKENSACK, N.J. >> At dinner tables, in classrooms and in counseling offices, adults are grappling with how to help young people work through their anxieties and emotions in the aftermath of the divisive presidential election.
In colleges, students lined up for counseling sessions and sought out peers for support at meetings and at rallies. In lower grades, teachers fielded questions about what Donald Trump’s win could mean for students and stressed the importance of the democratic process. And at home, parents reassured children that they would be safe.
For young people, anxiety may be tied to deportation fears, tensions with peers over the election and disappointment over the failed prospect of the first female president, among other concerns. Experts say it’s critical for adults to talk it out, help them to feel safe and remind them to engage with others in a respectful and tolerant way.
In one Teaneck high school classroom, social studies teacher Margot Mack said students of all political leanings seemed shocked over the results, since polling had shown Hillary Clinton as the likely winner.
“My lesson plans for the day were held and that’s all we talked about,” she said. “They wanted to. It was really like a soul-searching session. They wanted answers and they wanted clarity.”
Some students were upset with the results, while others were confused about the role of the Electoral College. They listened to each other and channeled their emotions into research and learning, as they pulled up data and maps showing how people voted.
“You have to be positive,” Mack said. She asked the students, “What will you do? If you’re happy, how will you sustain this result? If you’re not happy, how will you change it?”
With tensions running high, there were reports in some schools across the country of election-related taunts and harassment. Yasmeen Al Shehab, said her 13-year-old daughter left school early Wednesday because she was comfortable after being taunted by a classmate after Trump’s win, in what she felt was a jab about her Muslim faith.
Officials at the Teaneck middle school dealt with it promptly, she said, but her daughter remained upset on what had already been a trying day for her three children, who feared they’d be singled for scrutiny in a Trump administration.
“They feel they can’t look to their commander in chief to protect them. Instead of saying Islam is a peaceful religion, he’s saying ban Muslims. They’re kids. It’s hard for them,” she said.
She encouraged her children to stand up for themselves and to report any problems, even as she worried privately about escalating anti-Muslim sentiment.
“We are relying heavily on our faith to have our discussions with our kids,” she said. “We ourselves are grappling. We don’t know what’s gong to happen.”
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, professor of education, psychology and linguistics at the University of Delaware, said parents should reassure young people that they are protected and model behavior that is calm and respectful.
“Kids are worried, especially kids of color and children whose families originate elsewhere. We need to tell them there is a place for them here, that they belong here and that no one going to kick them out,” she said.
The fear may be real for families with members who are undocumented immigrants, but parents shouldn’t project fear because kids will feel it too. “If we go around talking like the end is nigh, they’ll pick up on that. Children will detect our concerns,” she said.
Anice Thomas, director of the campus counseling center at Rutgers-Newark, said the calls started coming in beginning at 7:30 a.m. on the day after the election.
“Some students were in shock, in tears,” said Thomas. “They were not sure how to make sense of it.”
For some in a generation that came of age in what they saw as a hopeful era of gay rights and racial inclusiveness, Trump’s ascendancy felt like a harsh — and depressing, lesson.
“I spent the first 48 hours after the election crying and sleeping,” said 18-year old Ahan Sikri, a student at the university, which has been anointed the most racially and ethnically diverse campus in the nation by Forbes.
Indeed ethnic minorities said they felt targeted and fearful.
“I’m scared,” said Zarinah Raheem. “It’s not easy for people who look like me: I’m a woman, I’m black and I’m a Muslim,” said Raheem, who wears a traditional head covering.
Thomas said it was important for people to talk about their feelings in community, and that’s just what Sikri and Raheem did during a session Thursday afternoon that drew more than 100 students at the student center in Newark’s Central Ward.
At Ramapo College, in the leafy suburbs of Bergen County, President Peter Mercer encouraged students to stay true to American values.
“For those of you who may feel anxious, discouraged, or even dispassionate about the societal impact of this election cycle, I encourage you to reject the false comfort of isolation and instead to engage with your peers, colleagues, faculty, and staff in ways that promote mutual understanding and respect,” Mercer wrote in an email to students. “We all, always, have something to learn and something to share.”
Christopher Cannon, an African-American student from Hackensack, said students came together for nearly three hours at the black student union on Thursday to discuss their fears of “stepping back into the 1960s.”
Ramapo, like other campuses around the country, has been working to address issues surrounding sexual aggression, and the election of a man caught on tape bragging about grabbing woman was jarring.
“Students are concerned, men and women alike,” said Nicole Morgan Agard, equity and diversity officer at Ramapo.
Stephen Brock, past president of the National Association of School Psychologists, said the impact of this election was so emotional because of the divisive language during campaigns and the 24-7 coverage of the election.
He said it was disturbing for young people to hear candidates talk about people as terrorists or about mass deportations, especially when they don’t fully understand what is happening.
School psychologists need to remain politically neutral when dealing with students and listen to them, he said.
“We need to answer their questions with facts, to be calm and let them know we are willing to talk. Don’t be perceived as judgmental or biased one way or another,” said Brock, a professor and school psychology program coordinator at California State University in Sacramento.
Parents, teachers and caregivers need to watch how they talk and act around children.
“For any event that is potentially frightening, young children in particular are going to be looking to adults to see how they’re behaving. If they see adults crying, upset and disturbed, they’ll take their cues and likewise become anxious and disturbed.
For parents, safety assurances are key: “Let them know that adults are there to protect and take care of them,” he said.