These are interesting times to be a parent, aren't they? Even if you don't watch the news or the Presidential debates in your home, it is inevitable that your children will be hearing about the 2016 Presidential elections. How do we, as parents, explain the behavior of candidates that would be unacceptable in our own families? What do we do when our children ask us who we are voting for? How do we deal with the anxiety that some kids might feel about the prospect of certain candidates actually becoming President of the United States? Here are some tips:
-Turn your kids' questions into a civics lessons. Talk to your kids about how the election process works, how the government works, how long a Presidential term can be, how a President differs from a King/Queen, what is means to live in a democracy. These are all really important things for our kids to learn, and they are not necessarily taught in the elementary grades in schools these days.
-When candidates do something repugnant, discuss it. As a family, think about why the candidate did what they did. Was it to get attention and to make the front page of the news? We can also use these missteps to discuss values we want to impart in our children. Perhaps we want to teach our children that it is our duty to welcome people to the US from countries where they don't have good lives. Maybe we want our children to learn to always speak to people with respect, even if secretly we don't like them. Perhaps your family feels strongly about protecting the environment and trying to reverse some of the effects of global warming. There are so many lessons to be learned from today's headlines.
-If families disagree on issues, place it in the context of democracy. It can be stressful for kids to have parents who support opposing parties or candidates. Similarly, each member of a family (including children) might feel differently about a given political issue. I encourage parents to keep these discussions calm - kids can become very anxious if their parents are screaming about politics at dinner every night! However, calm differences of opinion can be used to illustrate the beauty of freedom and democracy. We are so lucky to live in a country where we can each voice our opinions and where we are free to choose our own leaders. Speak to your children about other countries in the world where citizens do not have those choices and discuss what that is like for both children and adults.
-Reassure anxious kids that there are checks and balances to ensure that a President won't totally mess up our country! Some of my patients are worrying that particular Presidential candidates might have terribly consequences for our country. It is okay to reassure kids that a Presidency only lasts 4 years and that if someone does a terrible job, they will not be re-elected. In addition, because of the structure of our government, a President does not have ultimate power and there are many checks in place to ensure that sound decisions are made. Even if a candidate is saying right now that he or she will do X, it does not mean he or she will ultimately be able to do X as President.
-Teach your kids that political views are a private family issue. In our family, our kids know how we vote. They understand why we vote for one political party and not the other. They understand that when they are adults, they can make their own choices about who they will vote for (because we live in a democracy). They also know that these discussions are private and that discussing political views with friends and even family members can become contentious. It is okay for kids to say, "We don't talk about that outside our family. My mom and dad say that who they vote for is private."
How have you dealt with political discussions in your family during this election cycle?
I am a licensed psychologist working with kids, teens, and adults with anxiety disorders.