I’m not going to lie, my five-year-old already probably knows more than I’d like her to about the presidential election. She knows there’s an election, she knows two people are running and she knows that mommy and daddy voted for Biden. We tried our best to explain things in kid-friendly, Sesame-Street-type terms — saying that we felt our current president was a “bully” and that we didn’t agree with him, so we voted for the other guy. But was that okay for us to do? And now, with a constant flow of election fallout news spewing out of my phone, how much of my preoccupation and utter bewilderment should I explain? Does it all depend upon the age of my kid? And how do I make sense of things for her when I can barely understand them for myself?
Basically, I just wanted to know how much of this shit a parent should be making their kid aware of, so I reached out to some parenting and childcare experts to get a little guidance.
Kimberly Bell, clinical director of the Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development: Elections are a huge part of the American experience, so talking about the election with your kids is fine. They start in elementary school running for class president, so you can talk about the election and you can talk about why you vote the way you do, you just want to be sure it’s all age appropriate.
The best way to frame it, especially with younger kids, is to relate it to family values: “We’re voting for this candidate because they fit with our family values.” You can do that with a pretty young child because you’ve already been teaching them that. You can also let them know that there are other sides to things by saying, “Different people have different opinions, and in our family, this is what we believe.” Teenagers, though, will already have an opinion, and they may differ from yours. The goal there is to always have those lines of communication open so that you can challenge their thoughts and ask them why they believe what they believe and you can explain why you believe what you believe.
If things don’t go the way you want them to, or if it’s very stressful in the meantime, the overarching thing is to get a handle on your stress enough so that you can answer whatever questions your child may have. For example, teenagers are going to have lots of questions about the process and all of the hate and aggression going on, but don’t flood them with information. Instead, try to calmly say, “What are your questions?” and answer those specific questions. If something comes up and you’re not sure how to answer, I’d ask, “Well, what do you think?” Then you can let them get their thoughts out, and you can correct any misconceptions first and go from there. That will assure that you’re not overwhelming them with too much information.
With younger kids, they likely won’t process parental stress about this as being different from any other sadness parents might feel — like, if grandma dies or they’re having a hard day at work. They’ll notice a difference in the parent, but they likely won’t be as interested in the reason why. When you explain it, it’s okay to say, “Mom’s having a hard day, but tomorrow will be better.” For them, it’s more about reassurance than anything else.
Let’s be realistic though: This year it may not be possible to contain all of your feelings about this. No matter who wins, the other side is going to respond with fear. It’s not just sadness, it’s fear for the future. So if you have a partner and one of you is having a harder time, the other can step in and be the stable one for a minute and take turns. But if you can’t do that and you’re upset, the best thing to do is normalize those feelings. You can say, “You know how sometimes you don’t get what you want? I didn’t get what I wanted. And you know how sometimes you get sad and you cry and then you feel better? Well, right now I’m sad and crying, but I will get better.” That’s all kids care about. Just reassure them that tomorrow will be better, because we’re going to have to do that for ourselves as well.
Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: If you’re having trouble managing your stress about this, it helps to limit the flow of information that is coming into your home by turning off the TV or taking a break from your phone. That constant flow of information will just further your anxiety, so taking a break really is a good idea. Step away, play a game with your kid, just do something else for a little while. This is especially true with this election, as it could take days or even weeks of this — we just don’t know. So if you find yourself getting really upset, you’re going to want to take a break not just for yourself, but also because that’s good modeling for your kids.
But the election is also a great time for a civics lesson for your child, particularly those who are 10- to-12-years-old and up. It’s a time to teach values as you can explain what it is that you like about this candidate or why they align with your family’s values. So if you value social justice, you can talk about why that’s important and why you felt this candidate was more in line with what your family believes. But if your candidate doesn’t win, that’s okay too because that’s what this country is about, and you want to assure your kids that you’re going to get through this.
Younger children are taking their cues from a parent, so if you’re really upset, they’re going to be worried, so it helps to explain, “Daddy’s just really upset today. I was really hoping things would be different. I’m concerned, but things are going to be okay.” You have to put things in context and assure them that things are going to be okay, even if you’re not feeling that way yourself; otherwise you’re just putting a lot of anxiety on them that they don’t understand.
Leani Spinner, family counselor: I’m not sure I’m the best resource for this — I’m pretty anxious myself! There is a term for what we’re feeling though, it’s called “election anxiety,” and a lot of people are suffering from it right now. To mitigate it, it helps to minimize the amount of information you’re getting. You have to find a balance between being in the know while not saturating yourself with it.
It’s hard, of course, because it’s not just this heated election. It’s the pandemic, it’s the racial inequities that we’ve been seeing and that’s all on top of whatever personal stuff has been happening to you and your family, so it’s hard to contain it all. If you find yourself getting really stressed out, it would really help to reach out to someone — either your partner or a family member or a friend, anyone you can talk to. Though, with this election, you probably want it to be someone who agrees with your viewpoint.
When it comes to your kid, whatever you do share, do your best to be sure it’s age appropriate. You don’t want to use your kid as a sounding board for your feelings and you certainly don’t want to unload on your kid. This is all very stressful, yes, but worrying or scaring your child isn’t going to help.