Tensions are running high, and conversations about the upcoming election are aplenty, and who is picking up on all the stress and intensity? Our children. Many of us wonder how much to share with our children about politics. How much is good for them? Will they understand? Will it cause them stress or anxiety? These can be tough questions to navigate. Other times, children can surprise us with how much they’ve already picked up without us knowing it!

This is a parenting topic that may reflect differences in our values, beliefs and approach to sharing information with our children, and that’s okay. There is room for you to know your own child, what is best for them, and how your family approaches various topics and belief systems. We cannot answer specifics about how to speak to your child about all topics, but what we can do is share some general guidelines about children and development, and what we know to be true about children in general.  We hope some of these concepts will help form a foundation, from which you can have your own discussions at home!

1.   Explain Key Words and Processes

Children love learning how things work. Preschoolers often begin having questions about words like “president” and “elections,” and “voting.”  Perhaps protests in your community have already sparked further conversations. Help your child define these key words and understand the basics of how things work. Help them understand that the country has leaders, but there are also leaders in our cities, and even our homes. The grown-ups at home and school are likely the leaders they are most familiar with already.  

2.   If You are Feeling Stress… Own it.

Children WILL pick up on tension in the home and community so it’s best not to just pretend everything is normal. Own your feelings. Children are wired to attune to the emotions of the adults and peers around them. If you, your family, or community are feeling tension about the upcoming election, it’s best to own these feelings and find a way to talk to your child in a developmentally appropriate way.

3.   Consider News To Be Adult Programming

It’s common for parents to want to turn on the news while at home, or in the car to catch up on recent events. We’ve all done it, and just imagined that our children aren’t paying attention only to realize later we were seriously mistaken. News programs and headlines are designed to grab our attention. As adults we understand this, and can better navigate the information given to us. Children lack knowledge about the world and the skills needed to cope with all of this adult information. Young children can easily form fears from hearing adult news – we’ve seen it many times in our classroom and therapy offices. If you want your children to be informed on current events, seek developmentally appropriate sources for the information, or share with them in your own words so you can be present to answer questions for them when they arise.

4.   Share Your Values with your Child

It is healthy for families to share their values with their children. This is a big part of what parental guidance is all about. If your family believes that it’s important to be kind to others, you can talk about this value, model it, and encourage it in our children. When there is someone, perhaps in politics, who is not reflecting that value, it’s okay to have conversations about the topic and what you’ve noticed in kid-friendly terms.

5.   Assume Your Child Will Take your Messages Personally

When we criticize someone else, or label them as “good” or “bad” our children take all this in, but they often lack the context needed not to take it personally. When we say to a young child, “that grown-up is a bad person because they say mean things to people,” our children may wonder, “am I a bad person because I say mean things sometimes?” We want children, instead, to understand that they are still practicing and learning emotional regulation skills, and that does not make them a “bad person.” We can help our children continue to have positive self-esteem when we continue to communicate our expectations and values, and avoid black and white statements.  If we do make definitive statements about a topic we believe in, take a moment to follow up with your child to provide more context, and imagine how they may have interpreted what you said. Imagine putting what you said through a filter, that makes it all about the child, and provide your child with additional information that will help them better understand the meaning behind your message.