The current presidential race is proving to have some of the most polarizing 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, on-line and even on the playground in some cases.
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 do at home, you can bet that it will still touch them at school, among friends and of course, on social media.
In fact, according to a 2016 study by The University of Chicago, “nearly half of people age 15-25 get news at least once a week from family and friends via Twitter and Facebook.”
So, when it comes to politics, how do young people separate fact from fiction? Most adults are still trying to do that! One of the conclusions of the study was that “youth must learn how to judge the credibility of online divergent views on varied issues.”
The best way to help our kids sort through the clutter of news headlines, social media messages and public dialogue surrounding this election is to look at this is 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, kindness, respect and what behaviors are and are not acceptable.
The Negativity Bias
Understanding how the brain works may explain why we are sometimes drawn to political drama. As it turns out, we may be wired to see the unfavorable side of things. When it comes to our political system, we may focus on the arguments and name-calling without acknowledging our privileges like freedom of speech and the right to vote. Rick Hanson, PhD, psychologist and New York Times bestselling author, calls this tendency the “negativity bias.” This means that our bodies “react more intensely to negative stimuli than equally strong positive ones.”
And what does that mean? As Hanson explains, “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 (alas) than pleasure.”
How can we help our children (and ourselves) mitigate an innate pull toward dramatic or negative responses?
Press the pause button.
The key is learning to be mindful and getting enough headspace before acting or reacting.
Be a Role Model
As easy as it is to get angry and upset about the current political climate, try mindful breathing. When emotions and stress escalate, take a deep breath instead of reacting in the moment. This is a great practice even if your kids are not around!
Kids often take on the views of their parents. They are looking to you for perspective and if you respond with the same kind of anger some candidates are displaying, 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 comes at them in a confrontational way in person or on social media. Do some thoughtful reflection yourself and calmly share those thoughts 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, even our kids would follow suit.
But according to Dr. Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, a leading expert on brain development and children, there are six core strengths that children need to remain humane and resist the temptation to “join the group” when it comes to negativity, verbal bullying and perhaps violence. These strengths include:
- Attachment: The ability to form and maintain healthy emotional bonds with another person
- Self-regulation: Being able to think before acting
- Affiliation: While a family is a child’s first and most important group, groups like neighborhood friends, friends from a sports team or a pre-school class help a child develop socially within a group of peers
- Awareness: Thinking of others and not just themselves
- Tolerance: Accepting differences in others
- Respect: Respecting yourself and those around you
When a child has these traits, he or she is more likely to be reflective and think for himself or herself, making their own choice, without following the “negativity” of another group.
Tips on Talking to Your Kids About the Election
When our kids see candidates spew insults to one another and witness adults in a candidate’s crowd pushing and shoving, at first they may be shocked. But unfortunately, when the shock wears off, some kids will emulate what they see. And when adults are reacting impulsively like the candidates, there’s even a greater chance that will happen.
According to Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, “children watch the behavior of adults around them and then ‘try on’ the behavior.” In other words, they are learning how to behave based on your behaviors, habits, and reactions.
That’s why it’s vitally important to talk about what behaviors are appropriate and your perspective on the current political climate. If you don’t talk about it at all, your children may assume you think it’s okay.
Be sure to check in with your kids 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 politics?
- How do you handle a situation when your friends or classmates 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 kids bullying others about politics, it’s okay to take a stand and tell them to stop.
Tami Rogers is the parenting contributor to BodiMojo and co-author with Tara Cousineau, PhD, of the e-book: Your Guide to a Smartphone-Friendly Family.
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