Care and Feeding

My Election Anxiety Is Through the Roof

How can I keep it from my kids?

A woman sits on the ground and holds her forehead in her hand.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chinnapong/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My anxiety about the election is through the roof. I have young children—ages 3 and 6—and they both can sense it (and the older one has become visibly anxious herself). I remember thinking in 2016 that I was glad my daughter wasn’t old enough yet for me to have to explain this to. And now here I am. Help.

—Anxious in Ohio

Dear Anxious,

I remember thinking in 2016—grasping for some ray of light—that I was relieved my daughter was an adult, so that I didn’t have to try to find a way to explain what had happened. I also remember what it was like to live through the month of turmoil after the presidential election of 2000, when she was 7 years old and consumed first with anxiety (“But what will happen to us? We don’t even have a president!”) and then fear and dread (because she took literally my husband’s grimly comic remarks about hell in a handbasket). I did my best to soothe her, even as I tried to cope with my own stress. I learned some things from that experience (although in retrospect that wretched 2000 election seems like a walk in the park). For starters, there is no point trying to hide how you feel from your children (you won’t be able to, and the effort to pretend you’re fine will make your children more anxious, because kids are very aware of when their parents aren’t being honest with them). I don’t think talking to kids about uncertainty is a bad thing at all. You don’t have to emphasize—you should not emphasize!—your distress, but be frank with them about how nobody knows what’s going to happen, and that this uncertainty is a part of life.

In the wake of the 2016 election, Gerard Senehi, founder of the Open Future Institutetold Salon writer Alli Joseph that it’s not a bad idea to remind our children that the future is always unknown and that “whatever fears we have about the time ahead, there is infinite space for something entirely different to happen.”

This is a good reminder for adults too. But of course we adults have agency that our children don’t. My second grader was outraged that she couldn’t cast a vote in 2000; by 2004, a wise old sixth grader, she was resigned to it, but as part of a get-out-the-vote effort I was involved in, she and some of her classmates wrote essays imploring those who were old enough to vote to do so for the sake of those who couldn’t.

Since this column is running on Election Day, I want to take a moment to urge all the grown-ups reading this—especially the younger ones, ages 18 to 24, the demographic least likely to vote—to get out to the polls today. Remember that you’re casting your vote not only on behalf of yourself but on behalf of all of those who cannot vote—on behalf of everyone under the age of 18 and on behalf of immigrants who are not U.S. citizens (including permanent legal residents), on behalf of some of those who have been incarcerated, and on behalf of others who are unable to vote this year for other reasons but who will nevertheless be profoundly affected by the results of the election. And it’s not only voting for president that’s crucial; voting for candidates and issues at the state and local levels will also directly affect your life and the lives of others.

I’m in Ohio, too, and even as I remain quite locked down as COVID-19 cases continue to rise—especially since I’m 65 and thus at a higher risk—I voted early and in person. Indeed, it’s one of a very, very few things I have been willing to venture indoors anywhere to do.

By all means, Anxious (and everyone else who’s anxious!), take a look at this New York Times article on how to talk about the election with your kids. Have a look too at these materials from Teaching Tolerance, an organization that helps teachers educate children on how to be active participants in a diverse democracy. And everybody: If you live in the United States and you weren’t able to vote early and you haven’t cast an absentee ballot, grab a mask and head out now. When you talk to your children about the results of today’s election, you’ll want to be able to tell them how you participated and why.

• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have an acquaintance whose behavior during COVID is causing me to really question my choices. She and I both have young children, and while I haven’t seen her in several years, we keep in touch via social media. She has always been a person with a very busy social calendar (she is a stay-at-home mom) and since COVID began she has essentially carried on with her life as if nothing has changed, with the exception of sometimes wearing a mask in crowded public spaces. She and her family live in a consistently hard-hit state, have traveled recreationally multiple times to other highly affected areas, eat out many times a week, fly in friends and relatives for visits, send the kids to day camp and frequent play dates … basically, everything we used to do before the pandemic. My family, on the other hand, has been locked down hardcore out of a combination of caution (due to several of us being high-risk with underlying medical conditions) and a feeling of social responsibility. If it sounds like I’m judging her, it’s because I am, honestly. I think some of the things she’s been doing are irresponsible and selfish. But, if I’m being honest, I’m also jealous. It’s been a real struggle for the last eight months working full time from home with no child care, no opportunities to travel, and no way to see our family and friends. I haven’t seen my parents, siblings, and close friends for nearly a year, and probably won’t until there is a vaccine. So it’s incredibly hard to open Instagram to see her flying in the kids’ grandparents for another visit, heading off on another girls’ weekend with a bunch of friends, or doing any number of fun things that feel like a remnant of a bygone time for us. And despite what I would consider risky behavior on her part, as far as I know, no one in her family has contracted COVID. While I still feel strongly about staying the course with our precautionary measures, I find all of this eating away at my resolve. Can I really justify being miserable and socially stunting my kids? Does what we’re doing even matter? Should I just scroll on by and live my own life?

—Comparison Is the Thief of Joy

Dear Comparison,

Your friend has been lucky; her luck may run out. Or—even if she personally stays “lucky” and doesn’t get sick—she may contract the virus, remain asymptomatic, and pass it along to someone else who becomes seriously ill. It is also possible, of course, that this has already happened and she doesn’t know it. (Or even—dark thought—that she knows it but hasn’t posted that information on Insta.)

I know you already know the answer to your questions (yes to all of them). I also know that sometimes everyone needs an external voice to echo and confirm what one’s own inner voice is saying. Let’s review for a moment: As of this week, there are 75,000 new cases daily—there have been more than9 million cases so far—in the U.S. There is a new case every second. And although deaths from the virus are down, more than 1 million people worldwide have died so far.

Stay the course. Don’t let this jackass eat away at your absolutely sensible—and honorable—resolve.

I know it’s incredibly hard to live this way. I know that when you see other people behaving as if we were not in midst of a deadly pandemic, it’s easy to feel (for the moment, at least) as if we, the cautious and responsible ones, are in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Your acquaintance is behaving utterly irresponsibly, failing to take care of herself, her family, and anyone she and they encounter in their travels and adventures. At best, she is a fool. Unfollow or mute her on Instagram right this minute. Why subject yourself to her fecklessness, when all it’s doing is undermining your own determination to do the right thing?

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My almost 4-year-old son started asking questions about death yesterday. I’m not sure what prompted it, but he was on the floor playing and then suddenly he was asking if he would have a new mom and dad if we died. I told him that his mom and dad wouldn’t die for a long time (which, obviously, I hope to be true). My instinct at the time was not to lie and tell him we would never die. But a couple of hours later, as I was putting him to bed, lying next to him, he asked in the smallest, saddest voice if mommies and daddies really do die—and then he burst into tears. It was heartbreaking. I stayed with him and he sobbed and rubbed his back and said, “I’m here right now, Daddy and I are not going anywhere,” etc. I explained how I planned to watch him learn to ride a bike and go to kindergarten and do all kinds of fun things and drive a car and have his own kids and so on. My question is: Did I handle this correctly by confirming that parents do eventually die? I’m afraid I prompted an existential crisis in my toddler (and as someone who struggles with anxiety, I have anxiety about passing anxiety onto my kid!).

—Death, Destroyer of (Toddler) Worlds

Dear DDoTW,

I think you handled this very well. Lying to kids is a terrible idea (and, as noted above, it usually doesn’t work anyway—and even when it does work, eventually you have to come clean and then you’ve got double duty: the hard job of telling a hard truth and the harder job of explaining why you lied). And everybody has to learn this particular hard truth and find ways to live with it. As your child gets older, he’ll find his own ways; for now, this is your job and you’ll want to keep it as simple as possible, focusing on how very long and full of joys life is, how very distant death is. It seems to me you did exactly that.

You didn’t prompt his existential crisis. Something—who knows what? (death of a parent is a feature of practically every fairy tale, not to mention all of Disney, etc.)—got him thinking about death. It was bound to happen sooner or later. It seems you wrote this letter soon after putting him to bed, so I don’t know if he was still talking about death the next morning. My guess is the answer is no. But even if the next day—and the day after that—had him still working this out in his mind, I feel sure that before long he will put this thought away. Not that death won’t come up again—it will, periodically, in one form or another (stay tuned for the day it occurs to him that one day he will die). Eventually, as he gets older, your response will have to be more nuanced and complex. But for now? You did good. I understand the worry about passing your anxiety along to your child (we’ve come full circle today!), but it sounds to me like your instincts are excellent—and, as an anxious person yourself, you almost certainly have a better idea how to deal head-on with anxious thoughts than someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety themselves (here’s what I wonder: Is there any such person right now?).

—Michelle

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