Here’s Why You Should Talk to Your Kids About the Election

by Robyn Mehlenbeck

With only one day left before the U.S. presidential election, you can’t go anywhere without hearing major issues being discussed, often with fear and anxiety about the outcome. If you Google “2020 election” you get over 1,110,000,000 hits in less than a second. All have headlines that exacerbate stress, highlight problematic behavior and/or are divisive. Yet, there’s little out there about the effect of the election on our children—what are they hearing, experiencing?

In a time when families are being torn apart by politics, it would be easy to avoid discussing this contentious, anxiety-inducing election with children. Yet it is critical that you, as parents, are there to have this conversation!

“Why should I talk to my child about the election?”

First, children are sponges, and they are very aware of what is going on around them. If you are anxious, so are they. If you are proud to vote, they develop pride in voting. You don’t know what they are absorbing until you ask and talk about it. All around us, adults are falling victim to misinformation, so how do we expect our children to understand what is going on if we don’t talk about it? Children learn from friends, school, family members and yes, social media. They often even remember the little things you say around the house (as long as you weren’t asking them to clean their rooms). Even young kids are being exposed to all kinds of sources, and as parents, you can help them make some sense of it. For example, talking to your 6-year-old may reveal that they are worried our country is “doomed.” I have heard similar comments from many youngsters, echoing social media posts or upset parents.

It’s also important to open up the conversation so that children know that they can talk to you about difficult topics. This sets the stage for later conversations about how they are doing and how external factors (from politics to peer pressure) affect each of us. Many children have been exposed to racism, which has become a front issue in this election. One of the 10-year-olds I worked with shared that he didn’t understand why someone called him a bad name; the child had said it was okay as it was a word the President had used. As parents, we need to be able to help our children through these difficult times.

“So, yes, I know I should talk to my child. But how?”

This is a great question—and you can let your child guide the conversation for you. Here are a few key things to keep in mind as you approach the conversation:

  • Even for children as young as preschool, ask them what they are hearing from friends or family.
  • Ask them what they may want to know more about.
  • Don’t speak for a stretch longer than 15 seconds (after 15 seconds, most children only hear the Charlie Brown “wah wah”).
  • Use language that is appropriate to the age of your child.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Reassure that you will take care of them.
  • For older children, let them talk without judging. Encourage them to get the full information and share what they are worried about.

Talking to your child about stressful issues like a contentious election is crucial for them, and it also helps you as a parent. Use the opportunity to model behavior you want your child to emulate. Before sitting down to chat with them, think about what’s important to you and what values you want your child to pay attention to. Taking the time to check in is almost always a good idea—your child is listening (even if your teen pretends not to).

Dr. Robyn Mehlenbeck is the Director of the George Mason University Center for Psychological Services, and Clinical Professor in Psychology. She is a Board Certified Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in working with teens and families, and kids with medical conditions.