During election season, discussions about candidates and issues can easily become heated, both in and out of the home. Children often observe these interactions from a very young age, and the tension can cause them stress.
We talked to Melissa Buchholz, PsyD, clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Child Health Clinic, to learn how parents can reduce the stress kids may feel during these types of conversations.
1. Should we avoid arguing in front of our kids?
It’s OK to have an argument in front of your kids, as long as they see a resolution. Often, parents put the kids to bed, work out the argument while they’re sleeping and everything is fine when they wake up. But the kids don’t see a resolution take place. Kids need to see that you can still have a relationship with someone you disagree with — that there are healthy ways you can interact with someone who doesn’t have the same opinion as you.
2. When does healthy conflict become unhealthy?
Healthy conflict is when opposition comes from a good place and the people arguing maintain respect for each other. It becomes unhealthy when people start calling names or becoming physically or verbally aggressive. If parents feel like the argument is headed in that direction, they should check in with each other to make sure they both feel like they’re still in the healthy range.
Monitor what stress looks like for very young children. If you notice difficulty eating or increased fussiness, that child might be undergoing stress. Ask yourself if you’re exposing your child to your heated arguments and if you need to tone it down.
3. How do you help manage stress related to choosing sides?
When parents have differing views, children might feel like they have to choose which parent to agree with. Whether it comes to politics or sports or any kind of split, it’s important to give kids explicit permission to grow and learn and make up their minds later. Emphasize that they do not need to choose a side.
4. What should kids do if this comes up on the playground?
What kids see at home can make it to the playground. Parents can prepare kids by explaining that there are lots of feelings and opinions, and that no one is 100% right or wrong. Encourage them to accept others and respect people who are different from them. Model that kind of acceptance in front of your children, and it’s more likely they’ll get along better with other kids who have opposing points of view.
5. Why do parents’ beliefs matter to kids?
School-age children get wrapped up in who their parents are and what that means to them because their parents’ view is their worldview. If you challenge their worldview, you challenge their identity.
6. What should parents do if kids have specific questions about the election?
Model for kids informed decision-making. Share with them the news sources you trust. If they’re old enough, show them how to research the answers on their own. Explain how some people, organizations and even news sources disagree about what is and isn’t true, and how that can make it hard to form a decision. Show them how you decipher your beliefs by walking them through your process of critical thinking.
7. What if your kids have vastly different views from you?
You can do the best to raise your child with your values, but at some point they’ll become an adult and make their own decisions. Parents need to decide when they’re ready to step back and let this happen. There is a point when you just don’t have control anymore. Ideally you want to communicate unconditional love, but you also don’t want to be overly permissive. It’s important to search for a balance.