Talking to Kids About Politics

The election is over, yet political tension is still high. The media continues to share messages and images that can sound angry, confusing, contradictory and, at times, downright frightening to a child.

These messages can make you and your children anxious, angry and sad. When people are anxious, they tend to seek out news to help reduce their anxiety, but, because people are more likely to look for, agree with, and remember threatening news, looking to the media may not help lower anxiety at all.

Even without the media, it is difficult to get through a day without overhearing or being involved in political discussions. Helping our children navigate the current political climate and post-election state of affairs can help them with real and imagined fears and anxieties, as well as present opportunities for growth and education.

Talking with young kids

Listen to what they are saying so you can help ease their specific fears and worries, or correct inaccurate information. Use this as a time to help them think about what is right and wrong and as an opportunity to talk about their feelings.

Remind them through your words and actions that there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to talk and behave. Be clear that name calling, instigating behavior and threats are not acceptable. A parent’s job is to help children learn how to develop the skills necessary to be a successful adult. Learning to hear the perspective of another, to express thoughts and feelings in a helpful, calm manner, and to work toward solutions are part of that.

Help children think and talk about the issue at hand. Explain that politicians and the media sometimes use personal attacks and exaggerated, dramatic statements to get negative attention, and sometimes go overboard. Talk about how to avoid being overly influenced by negativity and help them learn to think and talk about important topics.

Talk about lessons learned and instill hopefulness. Even if you are upset by the election results, your child is looking to you to for hope. Talk about what you have learned about the “other side’s” point of view and how that has been helpful. Look for local initiatives that use your knowledge and experience to shape the future in a positive way so your child can see how to take action appropriately.

Talking to Tweens and Teens

Older children and teens are able to have, and benefit from, more significant discussions about politics, but make sure you stay focused and keep it simple. Talk about current political figures, ads, or media posts in a way that focuses on the issue and is understandable to them. By not overwhelming them with too much opinion, information and emotion they can gain skill and tolerance for thinking and talking about complex issues.

Help your child understand that social media and internet sources may be inaccurate, biased, and negative, specifically intending to portray an incomplete picture. Watch the national news, look at news articles and browse the internet with them to show them examples of what is balanced and accurate and what is not. Point out productive and healthy political discussion.

Encourage and appreciate their opinion, by reinforcing that your child’s point of view is important. Ask them what they think and how they came to that opinion. Recognize when they are able to connect the dots logically or when you see their moral compass developing in a healthy and kind way. If you correct their information, don’t speak beyond your knowledge or blur the distinction between factual information and opinion. It’s okay to say you don’t know something, or that you have an opinion that may change based on further information.

Keep a level head. While most of us have had a few laughs, thrown political jabs, and commented on what we despise or enjoy, keep it to a minimum. While we don’t want to be overwhelmed by politics, kids need to see that the issues at hand are serious and make a difference in our daily lives.

Practice what you preach

When a parent is worked-up over things like politics, it can be scary for a child. It might communicate that perceived threats in the world cannot be understood or solved, and that differences of opinion cause harm. If you find yourself being argumentative, overwhelmed and preoccupied, name calling, or otherwise carrying an alarming tone, try to check yourself. Get support or find healthy outlets so that you can be fully present and attentive to the opportunities you have in these discussions with your kids. Be gracious if your party did not win, and humble if they did. Your child will notice.

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Nancy Cunningham, PsyD
Dr. Nancy Cunningham is a psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital who has provided child and adolescent clinical services and overseen program development in their behavioral health department. Dr. Cunningham currently works with external community providers and organizations to develop partnerships that result in improved access to care and integration of services on behalf of children and their families.

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