By Cathy Cassata
Political talk is everywhere — on the news and social media, in-person between friends and family, and most likely at your kitchen table.
While talking politics is natural leading up to Election Day, the chatter can make its way to kids, too.
“Politics are front and center right now, making it a great time to talk to kids about the democratic process,”Mery Taylor, PhD, pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s healthcare system, told Healthline.
“It’s not something that is abstract — we are all watching it unfold,” Taylor said. “Now that many kids are back in school, there is sure to be buzz about current events. It’s important for parents to get ahead of the information, so they can be prepared.”
A 2019 study of almost 200 elementary-aged children before and after the 2016 election found that 88 percent of the children supported Clinton over Trump, a preference that didn’t vary by the participants’ gender or race.
Also, in an open-ended inquiry after Trump’s win, researchers found that 63 percent of children reported negative emotions about it, while 18 percent reported positive emotions.
A survey from October 2020 of teenagers conducted for mental health resource WellBeings.org found that societal concerns are important to those surveyed.
In fact, 23 percent of teens ranked the environment as the most important societal issue, followed by racial strife (21.8 percent), and an ineffective government (20.5 percent).
While kids develop their own political opinions, parents can help navigate processing information.
Experts say the following 6 tips can help parents do that in positive ways.
1. Encourage their curiosity
Rather than assuming kids won’t understand issues or processes, welcoming their questions can help give them a greater understanding.
“Children and adolescents are naturally curious creatures and you might be surprised by the questions that they will ask. You may find a conversation with your child or teen might even help you to articulate your own views more clearly,” Taylor said.
2. Explain the right to vote
Laura Ross, 2020 School Counselor of the Year, said to talk to kids about why people vote and how voting works.
For younger children, she suggests reading picture books that illustrate the process and for older kids watching YouTube videos that break down the process.
“Then have a discussion about it afterwards… by asking your child if there is anything they have observed so far in this year’s election cycle that doesn’t align with what you’ve just learned about the democratic process,” Ross told Healthline.
Focusing on the right to vote is a positive way to spin the discussion, Taylor added.
“Explain to them that everyone has a voice. While [kids] may not be able to vote, encourage your kids to get involved at school or in the community with issues that are important to them, such as the environment or the economy, for example. Let them know their contributions can make a big difference,” she said.
If getting involved isn’t possible, help them think about issues they care about and how candidates feel about related causes.
“Are they passionate about saving turtles? Help them learn about candidates’ views on animal welfare. Do they want to be a business owner someday? Help them research candidates’ views on small business. Are they interested in health and science? Find out about the candidates’ policies on science and education funding,” Taylor said.
3. Display respect for all parties
Giving kids a breakdown of the general ideology behind parties can help them understand why people vote one way or the other.
“Explain to your children the process of evaluating candidates’ policies and the impact of those policies on individuals, the environment, and the American society as a whole,” Taylor said.
Ross suggests referencing what you value as a family, the importance of understanding different points of view, and how to have a discussion with someone who has different beliefs and ideas than you.
“It’s important that while we are making sure our youth know that participating in the democratic process is important, and we may feel strongly about our views and beliefs, that not everyone shares those beliefs, and they have different experiences and backgrounds that inform their beliefs,” said Ross.
She said to stress the importance of listening to understand, and disagreeing without becoming insulting.
4. Prepare kids for opinions from peers
Whether it’s via e-learning or in the classroom, or during a play date, kids may hear their peers talk about candidates or policies.
Ross said to urge your kids to listen with empathy.
“[To understand] why some students may be so passionate and assertive in their talks about politics or specific political candidates, help them [see] things from that peer’s perspective,” she said.
Ensuring what your child is hearing from their peers is factual can help them navigate information, too.
“We need to help our students process any information they hear (from peers or in media) through a lens of truth. Not everything that their peers are sharing is truthful. They may hear some truths, they may hear some statements that sound like fact or truth, but they aren’t really, and they will hear many opinions,” Ross said.
5. Ease their concerns about particular issues
Adolescents and teenagers may be concerned about certain issues that could directly affect them, their family, or community.
Ross said this is particularly true for those who are in marginalized groups.
“Many of the big issues being discussed by both parties in this election cycle can have a major impact on the ways that they are supported by their government and what rights they can exercise. Proposed actions from some politicians can upend the way they live, learn, and work in their community,” she said.
Because of this, it’s understandable that some kids may feel anxious, confused, or uncertain.
“Validate how they are feeling and normalize those feelings because so many other people are feeling the same way. Sometimes that’s all our youth need — someone to listen and really hear them,” said Ross.
To give them reassurance, she suggests reminding kids that the U.S. government is set up to provide a certain level of checks and balances.
“While we have seen some of those being bent in partisan favor, there are still other community members and politicians that are working hard to make sure their lives are protected and supported by the government. Point out times where this has happened to help your child identify supporters and helpers,” Ross said.
6. Warn kids about post-election responses
While kids may hear about, witness, or participate in rallies and protests leading up to the election, it can be helpful to inform them about the potential for heightened emotions and violent responses after a president is elected.
Taylor said to emphasize to younger children that as their parent, you’ll ensure their safety.
With older children, discuss how free speech is a protected right and can be used to speak out about injustices and grievances.
“[Talk about how] some protests can turn violent for a variety of reasons; this can be confusing to adults let alone children and teens. You don’t have to have all the answers, but be willing to engage in a dialogue with them. This can help to dispel any misinformation they might have and ground them in values you want to promote as a family,” said Taylor.
Ross agreed, adding that it can help kids to know that sometimes people are impacted negatively by decisions and laws created, which can alter their life.
“As we have witnessed very recently, there may be a few other community members who see the protest as an opportunity to make poor decisions, but help our youth focus on the majority and the purpose behind the protest,” she said.