Oh, the dreaded “p” word. Politics. With the U.S. Presidential election looming and political topics and debates dominating the news, your kids are likely listening and absorbing more than you realize. And chances are they’re asking some hard questions!
We turned to an expert, Keiko Wolfe—a Licensed Professional Counselor and Maven mental health provider who specializes in child and adolescent mental health—to share her top five tips for parents about talking to kids about politics and the election.
1. Be mindful of your conversations, even behind closed doors.
I’m sure you can think of at least one time where you thought your child was out of earshot, later to find out they overheard or saw something that you didn’t intend them to. Even half-joking comments from parents like, “If so-and-so wins, we’re moving to Canada!” can really throw a child into a tailspin of emotions. They trust you and what you say, and your child may truly believe that their entire life is about to be uprooted, causing a lot of unnecessary stress. Be cautious of these statements around the house. Children may also overhear other comments about your political feelings, your stress during the election, or an argument with another adult. Allow them to see a resolution if you have a disagreement. Modeling that we don’t always have to see eye to eye but that we can agree to disagree is a wonderful life lesson.
2. Teach your kids to be respectful.
It’s scary when kids see people disagree and be mean to each other, especially people in power like politicians. Through advertisements, debates, and other conversations between adults or even peers, children often pick up the campaign-inspired bullying and mudslinging that occur during election time. Take this opportunity to help your child understand why people get upset about politics, and what the reasons may be behind the name-calling and vitriol. Political anger and stress are often fueled by fear, helplessness, and powerlessness. Remind your children that it’s okay to be upset, to feel passionate about your values, but it’s not okay to be unkind.
3. Learn together.
Rather than explaining your views and your thoughts, jointly research different issues. Find political cartoons or books that explain the government and elections. Talk about the ads they may see or anything they’ve overheard. Ask questions instead of lecturing and help guide them to form their own opinions based on facts and their values. Emphasize that they have permission to grow and learn.
4. Talk about good and bad ideas, not good and bad people.
Talking about issues instead of politics is an easier way for kids to understand what is going on during the election. Make connections to age-appropriate experiences, like those they have in school, with their friends, or within the family. Ask them questions like, “Do you think the rules are fair the way they are? If you could make the rules, what would you do?”
5. Help kids express their feelings.
Ask questions and listen to what they have to say first. Responding with a question like, “And what did you think of that?” or “How did you feel when you saw that?” opens the door for them to start communicating and for you to reflectively listen to what your child feels. Kids are much more attentive to attitudes than we give them credit for, and they are very much attuned to body language and non-verbals. If your child is picking up on others’ stresses, or the tension between politicians in the media, take this opportunity to guide your child into identifying these feelings of discomfort, and use the other points in this list to help talk it out together.
“Remind your children that it’s okay to be upset, to feel passionate about your values, but it’s not okay to be unkind.”
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