Explaining things to our children that we cannot quite make sense of ourselves always poses an unusual challenge. The newsworthy events of this presidential election have presented this challenge to parents and educators day in and day out for over a year. So, how can we talk to our children about it?
Listen and follow the child’s lead It’s important to discern what children and teens know, think, and feel before we share our own ideas and opinions. Asking them if they have questions or thoughts about what they are seeing and hearing gives us a baseline for understanding what they have (or have not) been exposed to and what knowledge they have about the topic. This is critical because it helps us to facilitate a conversation that is commensurate with the child’s level of comprehension. So, while we do want to clarify confusion and share factual information, we don’t want to burden children with information or opinions that they cannot process or understand. Therefore, if we follow their lead, we often find that the path to good communication becomes remarkably easier to navigate. This typically holds true for children of all ages and at all developmental stages. So, first find out what’s on their mind, before (and if) you share what is on yours.
Be honest There is value in disclosing that we, too, are surprised (or fill in the emotion of your choice) by what may be going on. There are aspects of human behavior that are unpredictable and inexplicable, and even we, as adults, cannot always explain it. It is okay to be honest about this. On the flip side, there will be times when we feel compelled to take a stand or share an opinion about what we believe is right or wrong. For better or worse, many “teachable moments” have emerged throughout this election campaign and each of us is responsible for deciding which, if any, of these moments we want to address with our children. Of course, this is based on our own personal values, fears, and beliefs, but in this current climate of intense emotions, aberrant behavior, and conflict, we actually have an opportunity to discuss some extraordinary content with our children.
Stay positive While this presidential election has caused great divide among many, there is potential for it to have the opposite effect on our interactions and conversations with our children. First and foremost, ask them what they think and feel. Then follow their lead as you listen to their questions or concerns and offer responses that match their level of knowledge and comprehension. And if there are times when you feel both speechless and like you could speak volumes, you are in good company.
Cynthia Parson Puccio, Ph.D., M.A., L.C.S.W.