Last week the United States elected a new president. After a long, often times divisive and emotionally charged election season, last week’s decision has continued to fuel important discussions around politics, values, and the future direction of our country. Regardless of which side of the aisle you are on, the 2016 election was largely uncharted territory as far as campaigning, voter turnout, and expectations are concerned.
Why talk to your teens about the election?
Even though most teens are not of voting age, making sense of the election is important for teens. As parents and adults, we can set an example of what it means to be civically engaged and socially responsible, as well as how to deal with the outcome whether we win or lose. Many teens will be of voting age by the next election cycle, and the preparation for making informed political choices can never start too early. Additionally, the teenage years are an important time for identity development. Teens are learning about themselves and how they fit into the world. As such, the role of government, particularly in creating policies that will impact one’s day to day life, can be a point of confusion or concern for teenagers that are still uncertain about their own identity and needs.
Regardless of one’s political position, it’s important to remember that some teens may express fear or concern as a result of statements that were made throughout this election cycle in which certain racial, ethnic, religious groups, and sexual identities have been targeted. Addressing these fears in a compassionate and thoughtful way may serve to help teens work through these emotions and seek help when needed. Lastly, this is a good time to remind teens that it is never acceptable to practice hate, bigotry, bullying or exclusion.
Amidst the chaos of teenage life, it may be hard to pinpoint the direct impact of an election, but teens are undoubtedly paying attention. As any election before or after, the 2016 election provided an important opportunity to connect with our teens, model behaviors, and reinforce important values. This post is written to help provide some guidance about the ways that we can continue to engage with our teens in a productive dialogue about the election and our country.
1) Talk… and Listen: It’s important to remember that teens are still learning about civics, developing their opinions, and figuring out how to communicate effectively. The teen in your life may disagree with you, but it’s important to figure out and model how to disagree in respectful and productive ways. Here’s a fun clip that addresses this very issue:
In discussing the election, give your teen space and opportunities to ask questions. This can help you tune in to what they know or where gaps in their knowledge may be.
FInding the common ground:The election can provide an opportunity to discuss differences between political opinions and values. While you and your teen can become informed on different policies and discuss where each of you lie on these topics, values are one thing that may provide common ground. It is likely that despite a differing opinions regarding politics, you and your teen may value similar things like family, kindness, inclusion or honesty. Talking about the role of these values can begin to bridge gaps when disagreements come up, and can be a gentle reminder that even if you disagree, there is still plenty that you can come together about.
2) Explore opportunities for connection: As with any competitive experience, there will be winners and losers. In this way, an election provides a great chance for you and your teen to discuss the subtleties and grey area that comes along with big decisions. For example, not everyone who voted for a single candidate is going to like everything about that candidate, nor is a vote for a particular candidate a direct endorsement of all of that candidate’s beliefs. Similarly, just as some people may be pleased with the results of the election, there are others who are unhappy. However, if the outcome were reversed, this would still remain true. By encouraging your teen to consider the perspectives of many different people, you can help foster a level of open-mindedness and deep thinking.
Practicing compassion: When we are reminded about other’s feelings and perspectives, we open a window into understanding and compassion. Through such perspective taking, teens can learn to see the humanity in other people as opposed to viewing those with different opinions simply as “the other”. Use this time to brainstorm with your teen how they can support and help others during this time, regardless of which side of the election they may have been on. Regardless of who you voted for, this is a good time to remind teens that there is never an excuse for hate, bigotry, bullying or exclusion.
3) Do your research: The particulars of this, or any, election may raise questions about how the government operates and how our election systems work. By understanding what goes on behind the scenes of our political world, teens can be better informed about the topics and issues often discussed during campaigns or elections.
3 branches of government
The president and the executive branch
Congress and the legislative branch
Separation of powers
The election process
4) Encourage civic engagement: Contentious elections like this one can highlight the importance of being a civically and politically active member of society. Even before teens have reached legal voting age, you can discuss and model the many ways that citizens can engage in civic participation.
Voting may be the most visible way that people become involved in the political system. Talk to your teen about the importance of exercising their right and responsibility to vote for the government officials who represent them. Help them to get registered soon after they turn 18, and talk to them about the process of voting, including finding your polling place, bringing appropriate identification, and filling out a ballot. Voting can be intimidating to first-time voters, but providing thorough explanations of these processes can ease some of the pressure.
Start brainstorming: Though voting may be the most obvious, there are plenty of other ways in which your family and your teen can become civically engaged.
- Take a fieldtrip. As a family, visit federal, state, and local governmental buildings. Meet representatives and government officials from both political parties, if possible. Meeting policymakers can reinforce the notion that they are approachable and influential people.
- Express yourself. Similarly, encourage teens to write to their representatives. Remind them that these representatives are working to pass policies on their behalf, and that their opinions are valued and appreciated.
- Include your teen. Bring your teen with you to attend political events, like rallies, caucuses, open legislative sessions, school board, county board and city council meetings. Many of these events are family friendly and give important insight into the passion and processes of government work. Though it is often the least commonly discussed, a lot of policymaking is done at the community level, so this could be a good place to start.
- Volunteer in your community. Find a cause that your teen is passionate about and encourage them to get involved with a community organization working to make change. Better yet, volunteer as a family or encourage your teen to mobilize with their friends. Working one-on-one with people in your community can be quite rewarding and may help teens to better understand the importance of affecting positive change for themselves and others. In addition, for those who are frustrated or upset that the election outcome did not go their way, taking concrete actions–even small ones–can be an effective way to cope with disappointment and be the beginning of social change.
5) Make a plan for self-care.Regardless of whether you and your teen are happy with the results of the election, the fact remains that there is a lot of tension, fear and uncertainty in our communities right now in response to the outcome. During such times, it remains important to practice self-care.
Talk with your teen about ways they can check in with themselves about how they are feeling, decompress if things become too stressful, and help them identify who to turn to for support if they feel targeted or unsafe. For tips on how to practice self-care as a parent or how to help your teens plan for stressful moments check out our past series on self-care.
No matter your political beliefs, this election presents an opportunity to talk with your teens about their political knowledge, developing beliefs and values, and hopes for the future. By keeping an open mind and having honest conversations, you can support your teens as they develop into informed and engaged citizens.
Article by Lauren Lewis and Dayana Kupisk
Dayana is a graduate student in Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dayana previously worked as a life skills coordinator at a residential living program for teens and young adults. She has one older brother, and, for the first time in her life, is living in a different state from her parents.
Lauren is a graduate student in the Human Development & Family Studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Lauren also has a masters degree in political science from the University of Memphis. She is the oldest of five children and loves spending time with her 8 year old niece and 2 year old nephew.