Talking to your kids about the election

Signs encouraging people to vote.

The presidential election campaigns have been stressful for everyone — even kids.

Many parents are struggling to find the right way to talk about politics with their children, or they are worried about what might happen if the outcome of the election is not immediately clear.

Caroline Watts, a practicing child therapist and Penn GSE’s Director of School and Community Engagement, offers these ideas for how parents can prepare for these conversations.

Check in with yourself first

Before we talk about kids, let’s talk about you. Are you OK? Are you taking care of yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally? 

The pandemic has left many people feeling socially isolated. Jobs have been lost or disrupted. Schooling and childcare closures have forced many parents to make choices they wouldn’t have imagined a year ago.

Here are some small steps you can take this week that will help you:

  • Step away from social media. Doomscrolling is not helping you. The next tweet or news alert will not end your worries.
  • Avoid apocalyptic thinking. You can get paralyzed if you start assuming the worst possible outcome is the most likely.
  • Pay attention to how much you are drinking or otherwise self-medicating. People are drinking more since the start of the pandemic. The extra glass of wine or two might feel good in the moment, but regularly drinking more will only wear you out.
  • Get outside. You might not feel you have time for meditation or yoga, but simply unplugging and taking a walk can make a big difference. Bring your kids along.

Reframe politics so that it’s about values, not vitriol

 This election is a great moment to do what parents do best — teach. And you’ll be teaching whether you mean to or not.

Does politics cause you to scream at people, or at least people on television? Do you vilify the politicians you disagree with? Or the uncle whose views you can’t stand?

If so, try reframing how you talk about politics and current events. What are your core values, and why do you believe them? Why do these issues matter for the country? In addition to voting, what can you do to advance these goals and values?

Believe it or not, talking to your kids in these terms can actually help you manage your feelings. 

Make your home a refuge from election drama

 There is a real possibility that the election results will be delayed, or disputed. Kids, especially young kids, will likely have questions. They might be anxious. 

Don't try to pretend there isn’t uncertainty in the country. Children are generally more aware of the world than we think they are, including current events. 

Be reassuring. No matter what is happening in the outside world, you will take care of the family.

If the counting or court cases drag on, think about how much news you expose your kids to. If your family normally watches the evening news during dinner, maybe try music instead. Don't keep cable news on in the background all day.

Talk openly and honestly with teens who want to protest

If results are delayed or disputed, teens might want to join demonstrations or protests. Some demonstrations are designed to be family friendly. Some are not. 

Ask your teen if they know who is organizing the event. What is supposed to happen? What do they want to accomplish? If they can’t answer these questions, encourage them to reflect on these questions and learn more before taking to the streets.

After that, talk about staying healthy during the pandemic. There is no data showing large spikes in COVID-19 cases after racial justice protests this summer when many attendees wore masks. Like any other public gathering, they should wear masks and avoid anyone who isn’t masked up.

Finally, be realistic about the risk. We have seen people injured and killed at protests this year. Demonstrators, including teens, have been arrested. Crowds are exciting and teens often think they are invincible. If they are attending, who is their small team of friends whose first responsibility is to keep each other safe? What is their plan to leave if trouble should start?  

Tell them that you want them to stand up for what they believe in, but you want them to be safe doing so.

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