American politics remain a hot topic of conversation in many homes across the nation. Although teenagers may not be of voting age just yet, they are showing increased motivation to join the debate. This week’s article provides useful tips on how to approach complicated, and sometimes controversial, political issues with your teen. 

2016 was a landmark year for American politics. Even if you have little interest in politics, they are nearly impossible to ignore and often cause strong emotions and opinions. Teens are no exception and many have been active participants in voicing support for or objections against policies that directly impact their future. Fighting for a cause or a candidate is an important way for teens to explore and express their emerging identity and develop core values about what they believe, as well as learn how to participate as a citizen.

However, historical firsts and unexpected wild card nominees also have a way of fueling divisive political conversations and actions.  This “us against them” mentality pervades the American political scene and continues to dominate conversations on- and off-line. With the 24-hour news cycle, speeches, soundbites, Tweets, and Facebook posts continue to circulate and fan smoldering political discussions into flames. Your teen is also likely hearing doomsday commentary perpetuating the perspective that the United States is headed toward absolute chaos if one candidate wins and destruction if the other candidate is the victor. Political outcomes are often described in dire terms and the constant focus on candidates and future plans may feel frightening and overwhelming to teens – especially if they were strongly committed to a candidate who did not get the nomination.

Whether your teen is experiencing the adrenaline rush of seeing their candidate emerge on top or feeling discouraged and wondering if their political involvement was a waste of time, citizenship is about more than supporting the winning or losing candidate. No matter what happens on the national political stage, teens who care deeply can make their voice heard and actually influence change – even without a vote. Moreover, teens today have an advantage when it comes to using social media and digital tools to amplify their advocacy and political voice.

With the right support and passion, teens can overcome their disappointment (and anger) and become empowered citizens who contribute to the change they want to see. Here are some ways you can support teen citizenship. You may also find these suggestions helpful if you and your teen don’t see eye-to-eye on politics.

  1. Stay informed: Make a date to watch the news together with your teen each night and then fact check the news you are hearing on TV, online, and in conversations. Try sites like Snopes, Urban Legends Online, and Factcheck to debunk any false stories. Triangulate your facts – confirm political claims from three reliable sources. (Try .gov or .edu sites for research!)
  2. Don’t ignore situations or statements that make you uncomfortable: Notice that a politician says negative things about women? Bothered that your neighborhood doesn’t have handicap access at the curbs? Worried that school starts at 7am and you know teens need their sleep? Staying silent on these issues suggests to your teen that you find the situation ok or that you can’t change it. By talking about discriminatory practices, we can help our teens change the story they tell themselves about how the world works.
  3. Practice empathy: Empathy is more than just seeing another person’s point-of-view – it is valuing and respecting another point-of-view even if you disagree with it. Practicing empathy can open your teen’s eyes to possible needs. (It can also open your eyes to why your teen takes a certain political perspective!) One example of empathy leading to political action might look like a group of teens who took action when they noticed classmates walking to school on grass along a busy road because there were no sidewalks. These teens lobbied with their city to install sidewalks and won (find more on teen activism here).
  4. Get involved in local politics: Although there are certainly examples of teens making national and international change, our local communities are often the place where teens can have the most powerful impact. For example, if your teen is passionate about hunger, developing a backpack food pantry program at his school could be a meaningful starting point. Or possibly your teen worries about child health and safety. This might be a great time to help her organize “walking school buses.”

Not only will these practices help your teen make a political impact but they will also help your teen learn how to effectively communicate across sharp differences of opinion. Even if your teen is too young to vote, he or she can be practicing skills to be an informed citizen. By listening to other perspectives, honestly trying to understand how situations affect other people, and being aware of local and national issues your teen will develop the skills to make his or her voice count.

How do you talk to your teen about politics and/or other sticky subjects? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

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Article by Anne Clarkson

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Anne Clarkson received her doctorate in Human Development and Family Studies from UW-Madison and is currently the Digital Parenting Education Specialist with UW-Extension Family Living Programs. Over the past 10 years, she has worked as an educator in the fields of community health, parenting, family studies, and digital education. She and her husband are excited to be starting their own parenting journey this summer. Anne was a pretty easy teenager whose parents worried more about pushing her to try new experiences than about her rebellious behavior. When not talking about families and technology, Anne loves to cook, read, travel, play board games, and take long walks (ideally along beaches but typically along sidewalks).