There is an old saying about children that they have small heads, but big ears. It is unlikely that our children haven’t seen or heard some of the heated conversations around this year’s election. Now, with holiday gatherings on the horizon, we may be faced with political discussions while children are present. How can you make sure that kids are supported during these or any other difficult conversations? Here are some suggestions:
Just like in an airplane when there is turbulence and you are instructed to put on your oxygen mask FIRST before you help your children, if you are not thinking clearly neither will they.
Children depend on the adults around them to feel safe and secure. If you are anxious or angry, children are likely to be more affected by your emotional state than by your words. Find an adult you trust to help with your personal concerns and try not to air them in front of younger children.
Ask what your children and teens have heard and what they understand. As you listen, allow your child to express what he or she is feeling, including fear, anxiety, or anger. Teens may be very passionate when expressing their opinions. Do not minimize or dismiss their concerns. Try to separate fact from fiction, and put things in context. As you listen (and try not to interrupt), note any misconceptions, misinformation, or anxieties.
Every child is different. Their age, and their individual anxiety level, will determine how much and what information you may wish to share.
Because we live in a media-saturated world, pay attention to what they watch on screens. Try, if possible, to watch with them and use those “teachable moments” to help them digest what is being discussed. Please be careful not to offer your own inflammatory color commentary about topics being discussed.
As always, you have an opportunity to be a positive and reassuring role model for your family. When you share your feelings about new information, do so in a respectful manner. Respect and kindness are important values for families, friendships and communities, even if they have significant disagreements. Always encourage your child to tell you or a teacher is they feel threatened or bullied, or to speak up when they see or hear something that is inappropriate.
So this holiday season, please take note when conversations become overwhelming to children who are present. Focus on what is positive is your lives. If adults will not cease angry or inflammatory discussions, you can gently point out to the children that is not the kind of talk that you endorse, and that your table is a place for love, acceptance, and thanks.
Your child is always watching, and you are the door they walk through on their way into the world. Your calm reassurance and ability to promote their wellbeing is the most empowering part of parenting.
Dr. Don Shifrin is a pediatrician in the Allegro Pediatrics Bellevue office.