“Who do you think is going to win? What will happen if Trump wins? What about if Biden wins? Will people get mad? When will we know? Are there any Cheerios left?” The morning after the election, my (Yael) ten-year-old hurled questions hard and fast. Uncertain and worried myself, I wrestled with how to respond. Now, the election is over, but the hard-flying questions aren’t.
Parents across this country have been confronted with probing questions from our children. Simultaneously, we’re facing deeper, more ponderous questions from ourselves about the “right” way to respond and the best way to help our children understand what has been a divisive and confusing time. When my (Rebecca) six-year-old asked the other day why elections are so important, it was tempting to offer a cursory “Don’t worry, everything’s fine!” and change the subject.
But as clinical psychologists who specialize in parenting, we believe this cultural moment offers a powerful opportunity to teach our children about the world and to pave a healthier way forward. Perhaps just as important as teaching our children, talking with our kids throughout this high intensity time and its aftermath can help us to process our own questions, political anxiety, anger, and even befuddlement. Through conversation, we access an opportunity to make sense of the chaos and create meaning from all that has happened. And we are empowered to cultivate a clearer vision of how we want to act as parents and citizens moving forward.
Talking with our kids throughout this high intensity time and its aftermath can help us to process our own questions, political anxiety, anger, and even befuddlement.
Whereas not talking to our kids about politics leaves them on their own to interpret the anxiety and deep anger that has resounded through the cultural ether, active conversation helps them understand the significance of this election, how to deal with difficult emotions, and how to negotiate complex situations involving people we don’t see eye to eye with. Silence could easily be interpreted as tacit approval of emotional warfare, fear mongering, litigious manipulations, and self-assured levying of untruths. Conversely, discussing what we’ve witnessed on the national stage gives parents the opportunity to clarify what the family defines as decent and admirable behavior—and what is not.
We urge you to bring your kids into conversation. But as parents of young children ourselves, we understand just how formidable this challenge can be. Thankfully, psychological research offers a useful guide. And for readers without children, we believe this advice can still be useful to help you better understand your own feelings and process what has been a strange and turbulent time.
Acknowledge emotional discomfort while taking meaningful action
Of course, one approach to avoid when talking to kids about these surreal political times is blind “It’ll be fine” optimism. But that also doesn’t mean we should wallow in our own anxious uncertainty. We can model the ability to accept emotional discomfort while still taking meaningful action. In acceptance and commitment therapy, a scientifically validated therapeutic approach, individuals learn to make space for emotional discomfort while simultaneously reconnecting to values that can lead to action. Distress, anger, worry, and so many other emotions are normal and appropriate responses to the events of the past several months. When our children ask a pointed question about a topic we find distressing, rather than changing the subject or glossing over the question, we can work to acknowledge these feelings without being afraid of or paralyzed by them.
Rather than changing the subject or glossing over the question, we can work to acknowledge these feelings without being afraid of or paralyzed by them.
Mindful parenting, which includes a parent’s ability to allow for their own and their child’s emotional discomfort, is associated with lower levels of behavioral and emotional problems in children across developmental stages. And a parent taking action, even from a place of emotional distress, offers children a powerful example. In one study of Black adolescents living in a high-violence area, caregiver coping behaviors—both avoidant and active—lined up with children’s coping behavior.
Understand the collateral damage of bullying, even for those on the sidelines
Another way we can help our children and ourselves better understand our feelings about this past election season is by reflecting on the way public discourse has taken shape. Research on bullying (a word many have used to describe the 45th president’s behavior) provides evidence that all parties involved in bullying incidents—that is, the bully, the bullied, and the onlooker(s)—experience heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and other negative emotional consequences. This suggests, to no surprise, that even those of us who watched debates and election coverage from the comfort of our homes were, and continue to be, at risk for these outcomes.
Talking to our kids about our own values around aggressive behavior can help our kids clarify their own ideas about appropriate ways to challenge those with whom they disagree. In one study assessing parent-child dyads, children who communicated frequently with their parents were more likely to generate effective solutions (such as seeking help or being assertive but not aggressive) to hypothetical bullying situations.
Emphasize diverse models of success
Recommendations to communicate more with our kids—and particularly about difficult topics—are not new. But such recommendations have reached a peak in this cultural moment of awakening to an ongoing social justice crisis. As we watched two old white men compete for the presidency, we were confronted with yet another opportunity to increase the frequency and openness of our communication around the world that is and what it could be.
The backgrounds of the men who fought for the office of the president sent an implicit message about whom we can expect to see in positions of highest power and prestige. And some of these messages were not merely implied. During the course of the election season, the sitting president failed to disavow organizations tied to white supremacy, and the sitting vice president asserted that systemic racism does not exist. Leaders can, and long have, silenced the voices of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. This silencing contributes to deepening prejudice and harm, resulting in depression and anxiety as well as a measurable impact on children’s daily academic performance. One statistical analysis compiling dozens of studies revealed a predictable downward trend on test performance when female students or students of color were confronted with cues that activated negative stereotypes associated with their group identity. This is a daily reality for many individuals from groups that have been historically and consistently oppressed. It’s one that may continue with prejudicial rhetoric from leaders with megaphones that project messages of bigotry.
Talking to our kids about our own values around aggressive behavior can help our kids clarify their own ideas about appropriate ways to challenge those with whom they disagree.
Here again, parents can—and we would argue, must—play a role. Cultural messages naturally get internalized and normalized unless we actively combat them. Discussions about racism can offer a kind of antidote to negative stereotypes. We can help children bring to mind diverse models of success, an exercise that may have a positive impact on performance. For example, following Barack Obama’s stereotype-defying performance in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, Black students’ exam performance rose during periods that directly followed his tangible successes. Parents can help make models of success more salient for their children by pointing to current, famous, and familial examples of successful individuals from diverse backgrounds. Noting aloud that Kamala Harris is the first woman of color to be elected vice president is a good start.
Shift how we talk (and think) about those with political differences
And while you may not have voted for President-Elect Biden, words in his acceptance speech are backed up by social science: “To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy.” This shift can take place through how we model talking about those with political differences, and how often and how willingly we engage with them. As one study examining prejudice reduction between Israeli and Palestinian children shows, building skills of perspective taking, compassion, and empathy, as well as having contact with outgroup peers, leads to reduced prejudice.
Parents, of course, are familiar with the importance of working to foster empathetic perspective taking in our children. “How do you think your brother felt when you ripped up his drawing?” I (Rebecca) might ask my four-year-old. Making an effort to see the world through others’ eyes is critical, both for helping our children navigate sibling squabbles and conflict that arises within their peer groups. These lessons extend far beyond playground politics.
As adults, we too can benefit from pushing ourselves to develop curiosity about those whose morals run counter to our own. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores research from ethnography, evolutionary biology, and experimental science to show that open curiosity and practice in perspective taking can help us bridge political divides—even when we starkly disagree. After all, just as a family could not thrive if parents viewed children as their mortal enemies, a democracy cannot be healthy if compatriots are seen as our most hated adversaries.
Skilled parenting involves both knowing and holding your boundaries around acceptable behavior and simultaneously striving to understand the behavior and the emotions it communicates.
This doesn’t mean that you should condone contemptible behavior. “All feelings are acceptable, and all behaviors are not” is a refrain frequently heard in my (Rebecca’s) home. From a parenting perspective, holding empathy without condoning behavior might look like explaining: “You can believe it wasn’t fair that your brother got a birthday present, but you can’t hide his gift”; “You can be angry because you think he stole something from you, but you can’t kick him”; and “You might feel that your coronavirus mask is uncomfortable, but you still need to wear it!”
Skilled parenting involves both knowing and holding your boundaries around acceptable behavior and simultaneously striving to understand the behavior and the emotions it communicates (even—perhaps especially—when it frightens you). A combination of setting limits on what is acceptable while offering care and curiosity is good for kids. It’s good for adults, too.
On the heels of a bitter election season accompanied by mounting social justice crises, a worldwide pandemic, and daily divisive vitriol from our leaders, Americans are yearning for a better world for our children, and for ourselves. Parents must help to create that world. If all else fails to motivate us to do the work of having the hard conversations and building compassion for those we disagree with, remember: we are on the hook to show our children how good citizens engage in a complicated, pluralistic society. We can remind ourselves of this value the next time the questions start flying.