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While parents watch the electoral map, children watch their parents.
They’re observing how the adults around them talk about the election. They’ve been paying attention to whether or not family members voted and who they voted for. They’ve been listening to how the adults discuss democracy, civility, their neighbors, and one another.
As uncertainty about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election looms, many voters are fearful and stressed, and the children are watching again.
“Kids can pick up on your anxieties and worries,” said Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association. “There’s no need to embellish or make statements beyond what we know currently, which is that there is uncertainty about when a winner will be announced, but it will happen at some point.”
A young child holds free snacks outside an early voting site on Oct. 30, 2020 in Milwaukee. (Photo: Michael McLoone, AP)
The moment offers an opportunity to talk to children not only about one of the most consequential elections in history, but also about values.
USA TODAY spoke with Wright, Nancy Deutsch, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, and Dr. Jenna Glover, child psychologist and director of Psychology Training in the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado, on how to talk to children about election night, the morning after and what lies ahead.
Be as direct as possible, focus on what your children are feeling
Glover explains that the best way for families to talk about the election is to be as direct as possible, while handing the microphone to the kids.
“They will actually feel more worried and upset when parents and adults ignore talking to them about it, rather than addressing it head-on,” she said.
To Glover, the easiest way to start the conversation is to ask: What have you heard and how do you feel about it?
Oftentimes, mistakes many parents make include focusing on their own emotions in an unproductive way, vilifying the “other side,” or not resolving arguments — which, Glover says, fails to give children the tools to cope, disagree or regulate their emotions in the future. But by allowing kids lead the discussion and see how to come to agreements, they can navigate what they’re feeling in a healthy way.
A teaching moment
Election Day is also a perfect time to help kids become more familiar with structures of government, the rules of voting and the electoral college.
“Using developmentally appropriate language based on their age, explain how voting in the U.S. works and the circumstances that make this year different – for example, the pandemic causing more people to vote by mail,” Wright said.
Deutsch said the election is also an opportunity to talk with children about “systemic racism and sexism – who is represented and who is not in our governmental structures. Part of our role as parents is to raise civically engaged and civically minded people, and an election is a great time to introduce some civics lessons into our family conversations.”
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A good time to talk about values
Deutsch said discussions about politics can be a good way of affirming family values. Talk to your kids about what you as a family care about and how those values are reflected in different policies that politicians support.
“For example, if we care about the environment, what are candidates doing to protect the environment in terms of the policies they propose and support? If we care about racial justice and systemic racism, what have candidates done and said that would help promote racial equity through governmental policies?” Deutsch asked.
Developing news literacy and online dialogue
Children today are growing up with far more news sources than their parents. It’s important, experts say, they learn how to think about what constitutes credible information.
Deutsch said this is an opportunity to help “our kids critically examine information and seek out reliable news sources.”
They’ll want to learn things like the difference between reporting and opinion and how to judge the quality and validity of information on social media or from a news outlet.
And as social media becomes a platform for more people to share their political views, Glover adds that this is an opportunity for parents and children to learn more about having safe discussions and disagreements in online formats.
WATCH: Could a contentious election affect a peaceful transition of power?
If your candidate doesn’t win
Wright said it’s important to validate whatever feelings your child may be having about the election, especially if your family’s candidate loses.
“Explain that disappointment … is normal and can include a variety of feelings such as anger, sadness, grief and fear,” Wright said. “Tell them it’s OK to feel these feelings and not to judge them.”
For families who may feel their safety is at risk, it’s important kids know the adults have a safety plan.
“Make sure that your kid has ways to process anxiety and worry if they are expressing that, and that you can talk to them about what networks of support you and your family have if they are concerned about what may happen to them or you if results go one way or another,” Deutsch said.
Ultimately, parents should assure kids that no matter what the outcome, your family will continue to live their values and work toward a world that reflects them.
“Whatever the results of an election, whether or not they go the way we may have personally hoped, there is always work to be done in making the world a better place, and we can think about ways that we will do that together as a family,” Deutsch said.
Plan regular check-ins
Glover stresses the need to have politics-based conversations regularly — even outside of election season — so the topics seem more approachable during stressful times.
“Kids worry about talking about things that are uncomfortable or difficult because they don’t have the space to do it,” she said. “I think we all can improve on that.”
Especially during uncertain elections like these, she adds that it’s important take breaks — and recognize what’s really in the family’s control.
“We all need additional support right now to be resilient in this time,” she said. “This is a time that families can really start thinking about, ‘What is it that we can control and what is it that we can actually do?’ and let go of these larger things, that certainly impact us, but there’s nothing that we can do but wait.”
Contributing: Wyatte Grantham-Philips, USA TODAY
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