How to Talk to Your Children About the 2016 Presidential Campaign

It's hard enough to understand as an adult. What about if you're a kid?

Tami Rogers

Published on: May 27, 2016

Welcome to ElectionMap. The 2016 election has produced numerous candidates for both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as hundreds of Independent and third-party candidates. ParentMap aims to help our readers make informed decisions going into the election season. Read more in the series.

The current presidential race is proving to have some of the most negative discourse on record. And a lot of that unsettling rhetoric is affecting the emotional lives of our children. It’s being played out in classrooms, online and, in some cases, even on the playground.

What could have possibly prepared us for the election that is unfolding before our eyes? And how are we supposed to talk to our kids about it?

What could have possibly prepared us for the election that is unfolding before our eyes? And how are we supposed to talk to our kids about it?

Sure, you can try and limit their exposure. But even if you monitor their television viewing, turn off the radio or watch their internet exposure at home,you can bet that it will still touch them at school, among friends and, of course, on social media.

For younger kids especially, exposure to news can be damaging. According to a national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 8- to 18-year-olds spend more than 53 hours a week using entertainment media (that's almost eight hours a day). That much media has different affects on different age groups.

For young children, they often can’t distinguish between what’s “real” and what’s just on television. For instance, If they see violent demonstrations and angry crowds on TV, telling them “it's very far away” will not always calm their fears because they often don’t understand what “far away” means. Is it down the block or at Grandma’s house?

While older children may not have the same challenge, they still must judge how valid a piece of information is. According to a 2016 study by the University of Chicago, nearly 50 percent of participants between the ages of 15 and 25 say they get news via Twitter and Facebook at least once per week. The study concluded that “teens must learn how to judge the trustworthiness of differing views they read on the internet.”

So how do we help our kids decide what’s real and what’s, well, not? Some adults are still trying to figure that out.

The best way to help: Look at the election as an educational opportunity to talk about our political system, how it works and how we got here. It’s also a chance to discuss bullying and what behaviors are and aren’t acceptable.

Consider the negativity bias

Rick Hanson, psychologist and New York Times bestselling author, studies what’s known as the “negativity bias.” This means that our bodies “react more intensely to negative stimuli than equally strong positive ones.”

As Hanson puts it: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. That’s why researchers have found that animals, including humans, generally learn faster from pain than pleasure.”

To help our children (and ourselves) overcome these innate urges toward negativity, consider mindfulness (aka taking a breath and thinking before reacting).

They’re taking a cue from you

As easy as it is to get upset in the current political climate — particularly about what certain candidates say — being mindful means that when your kids are around, you pause and consider rather than act out. (Actually, practice it without them around to just to get into the habit.)

Kids often take on the views of their parents. They look to you for perspective. If you respond with anger and frustration, so will your children.

Role play with your kids and show them how to handle situations where others have different points of view. Talk about how to react if a friend or classmate confronts them in person or on social media. Do some thoughtful reflection yourself and calmly share your conclusions with your children.

What creates political bullies among kids? 

Of course, when the candidates themselves are name-calling and acting like bullies, it makes sense that the rest of us — particularly our children — would follow suit.

It doesn't have to be this way, says child brain development expert Dr. Bruce Perry. According to Perry, there are six core strengths that children need to resist the temptation to “join the group” when it comes to negativity, verbal bullying and even violence. These strengths include:

  1. Attachment: the ability to form and maintain healthy emotional bonds with another person

  2. Self-regulation: thinking before acting

  3. Affiliation: While a family is a child’s first and most important group, groups of peers like friends, teammates or classmates help a child develop socially

  4. Awareness: thinking of others

  5. Tolerance: accepting differences in others

  6. Respect: respecting yourself and those around you

When children possess these traits, they’re more likely to be mindful and think for themselves without following the “negativity” of another group. To foster these traits, model the behavior you’d like to see in your child. Look at how you solve conflict at home and at work. If you’re angry, give yourself time to calm down before yelling or acting out in anger and always treat others with respect, even if you disagree with them.  

Also remember: No one is perfect. If your child sees an interaction you’re not proud of, explain that you made a mistake and apologize to the injured party. It’s good for children to know that adults aren’t perfect and making amends is an important part of the process.

Talking about the election

When kids see candidates act childishly or adults pushing and shoving at a political event, they may be shocked. Unfortunately, though, when the shock wears off some kids will emulate what they see. And when the adults in their lives act like the candidates, there’s even a greater chance children will mirror negative behavior.

That's not news. In 1977, noted  psychologist and professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University Albert Bandura discussed this social learning theory: “Children watch the behavior of adults around them and then ‘try on’ the behavior.” In other words, they learn how to behave based on these messages.

That’s why it’s so vitally important to talk about what behaviors are appropriate and what your take is as a parent. If you don’t talk about it at all, your children will assume you think it’s OK. 

Be sure to check in with your child on a regular basis and ask questions like:

  • Did you notice how these people are treating each other?

  • What do you think about it?

  • Are kids at school talking about it?

  • How do you handle it when they say something you don’t agree with? What if someone doesn’t agree with you? 

Tell them you are a family that believes that violence and disrespect is no way to get a point across. Mention that you think it’s important to listen to other people’s opinion with respect, even when we disagree. And when you witness other kids bullying others with politics, it’s OK to take a stand and tell them to stop.

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