How to Talk to Your Kids About the Election
Helping kids understand what happened, and what happens now.
Whether your candidate won or lost November 8, the 2016 election cycle stirred strong passions, emotions that have overflowed at dinner tables and on social media for months. Now, whether you’re ebullient or despondent, it’s important to help your children process what happened and how to deal with the fallout, especially at school.
Alison Zisser, a child psychologist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said it’s important to be honest about what happened, and about the results.
But parents should make sure they’re modeling good behavior for their kids, she said — and be especially careful not to put children in the position of being an adult’s emotional outlet.
“I also would want parents, whether they are feeling positive or negative, or somewhere in between in any range of feelings, to give their kids space for the kids to be able to talk about their thoughts and feelings about the election,” she said.
That space is important over the next several weeks, and possibly months, Zisser said. Follow your child’s lead — if she wants to talk about it, let her.
A Sense of Safety and Routine
Zisser said it’s also crucial for parents to make their children feel safe, by emphasizing that their daily routines, friends, and family will remain the same. Turn off the news and social media, she said, and do something as a family, preferably something that everyone enjoyed long before election season.
“What kids need, especially at any time of uncertainty, is consistency, predictability, a sense of security and support,” she said.
Some schools are emphasizing that sense of continuity as well. Susannah Wolf, principal of the Miquon School in Conshohocken, said some students, especially in the fifth and sixth grades, had spent time in the weeks before Election Day discussing the contest. There was a school-wide emphasis on listening and empathizing — two things emphasized every day at the school, which has students from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.
By dawn on Wednesday, she said, teachers were already sending comments and suggested materials back and forth.
“We wanted to give three messages to kids: one was that their feelings are valued and real, and to give kids a safe space in which they could talk about how they are feeling,” Wolf said. “And also that they are safe, and that this is a place where kids are safe.”
Many children arrived at school with “some misconceptions, some fears” about what the future holds, Wolf said. Teachers at each level started conversations that were age-appropriate, encouraging them to give voice to their thoughts, but also to respect others in the conversation.
The fifth and sixth grade classes, Wolf said, had “a huge mixed bag of emotions” as they grappled with the notion that not everyone felt the same way about the election results.
“There is no ‘we’ that feels one way here,” she said. “There are many different people who feel many different things, and when people feel differently, it’s true, it’s real, it’s valid, and it deserves to be respected by the community.”
Grace, No Matter the Outcome
But school corridors and playgrounds are places where kids interact one-on-one, often outside the attention of a teacher or administrator. If your child reports being harassed or bullied because of his political views, Zisser said, go straight to the school.
“We want to make sure children continue to feel that security that’s so critical to their well-being, in the academic environment as well as their home environment,” she said.
It’s a good time to talk about how our government works, and why democracy is important, even if it doesn’t always make everyone happy. Use an analogy, such as sports, to help a young child understand that being a good winner or a gracious loser is just as important in the political arena.
Wolf said she spent the morning Wednesday with the oldest students, reminding them of the structure of American government and that it matters that there are different points of view, and that the government can swing in different directions. She emphasized that change is slow, and that whatever is going to happen won’t occur overnight.
“We’ve had lots of conversations about how there are lots of reasons as to why people chose to support one candidate or another,” she said. “There are parts of each of their politics and their views that drew people toward him. It isn’t necessarily all about the extreme rhetoric.“
Ultimately, Zisser said, political disagreements are like any other individual difference between kids, and it’s just as important to respect them.
“We would emphasize good sportsmanship after a kickball game. This also was a competition, in a way, in which there was a side that emerged successful and a side that was disappointed.,” she said. “It’s important to encourage a sense of community and respect following the conclusion of this election.”
That’s where parents are most important, Zisser said: if you’re behaving well, your kids will, too. So save the gloating – or despair – for after bedtime.
“The example can be very powerful,” she said.
Photograph via Canva.