Talking to Kids About Elections
When reflecting on the recent election, perhaps the one thing everyone can agree on is that there were intense emotions throughout the entire process. And while that intensity continues to play out in the news – and perhaps even among families – many parents may feel at a loss for how to explain to kids what is happening, and why.
Dr. Marcia Slattery, UW Health child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of the UW Anxiety Disorders Program, explains that what kids are noticing the most is the depth and degree of emotion – and even division – that people on both sides have felt. And that is what is creating confusion, and feelings of fear and uncertainty.
“Kids are not going to be as aware of, or understand the complexity of what the issues are,” she says, “but they are going to see how adults are dealing with the situation – with very strong emotions that are often directed at other people.”
And that, according to Slattery, creates an opportunity for parents, teachers and adults to model for kids: how do we handle the intensity of emotions that surrounds the election outcome?
One way to explain it, she offers, is to use the model of competition – like in sports.
“When we go into a game, we know there are rules – that there is going to be a winner and a loser. And we respect the rules of the game and the outcome,” Slattery says. “At the end of the game, there is a reason why players shake hands before they leave the field – because they respect the rules of the game and the outcome, and they show their respect for the players on both teams.”
Slattery notes it is important to talk with kids that it is OK that people are going to feel very strongly, one way or the other – very excited, or sad and angry – about the outcome. But then we have to shift to considering how to move forward and work together—to go beyond the intensity of the emotion, and to continue to work toward the values and ideals that the election was really about.
“Parents and teachers have a wonderful opportunity to model to kids how we move forward,” Slattery says. “We’re seeing that at the highest levels of government where members of each political party are beginning to say they need to work together for the good of everyone in the country, and are offering ways to make that happen.” Parents can model this at home by monitoring their own emotional responses and “filtering” how they convey their strong political feelings and statements to children in a way to help them understand the process of elections, and the process of working together after the outcome.
It is also a unique opportunity to teach kids about what government is really about, and to step back from the emotion and the arguments to calmly talk about how our government works, Slattery explains. We have elected leaders like the President, but we also have a lot of checks and balances in the different branches of our government to insure that decisions are made together. When we teach kids about the components of government, we can turn the conversation in a more constructive direction and help them understand how the pieces fit together, and have worked for hundreds of years and through many elections.
But, Slattery says, teaching respect and tolerance is key.
“If I’m angry or I’m happy with the election outcome, I still need to respect the other side,” she says. “It can be difficult, but it’s really about respecting the process, respecting the players, moving forward and emphasizing the need to work together. It’s a critical role for adults to model for kids, and goes a very long way to helping kids feel safe and calm, and to learn how to navigate disappointment and challenge.”