Helping Kids Navigate the Campaign Season

We are in the midst of a presidential campaign like no other in recent memory. The Republican field has winnowed down from a record number of hopefuls to one (probable) candidate, and the Democratic side is down to two. Earlier in the process, there was a great deal of discussion about the entertainment value of heated debates, with an expectation that things would settle into a more predictable pattern. This seems, however, not to have happened. While the televised debates on the Republican side, at least, are no longer being televised, the strong language and extreme actions continue on both sides. And as the summer approaches and primary campaigns move into the general election, it seems more and more likely that the heat will rise again.

At the same time, our kids have more and more access to information independent from parental filters and controls. Children of all ages spend more and more time on media of all sorts, making them both more informed and more misinformed than ever before. So as parents, and as members of a democratic society, it is our responsibility to look at what is being taught and modeled to our children and to help them make sense of it.

One of the most outstanding features of this political season has been the tone. Candidates have engaged in name-calling and personal insults to perhaps unprecedented levels, and violence has broken out at an alarming number of political events. Perhaps even more distressing is the perception that this sort of behavior is effective, if not necessary, to get a point across and to gain support and success. It has been and will continue to be extremely challenging for parents to teach children the importance of behaving in a civil and respectful fashion when people whose actions are often the opposite of civil come ever closer to perhaps the most powerful and prominent position in the entire world.

Additionally, this campaign has had an extraordinary level of fear-mongering and stereotyping, and cultivation of an “us against them” mentality. In reality, the world is often dangerous and unpredictable, and children and teens are likely to experience anxiety as a result. By highlighting the problems “they” are causing, the candidates may be shoring up their base, but they are also leaving children and teens more afraid and distrustful.

Finally, anyone paying attention to the campaigns, through debates, ads, or “spin,” will be exposed to people playing fast and loose with facts. Statements are made and then echoed repeatedly, without challenging the accuracy of what is being said. This can also increase fears and mistrust, as children hear conflicting and contradictory messages from our “leaders.”

With all of these challenging, and at times disturbing, statements and behaviors being broadcast repeatedly, and with people engaging in these behaviors appearing more and more successful, it is crucial for us as parents to try to wade through the noise and teach meaningful lessons. It is critically important for all of us to understand and remember that people have very different ideas about how to solve problems and make the world a better place. It is even more important, and more challenging, to both teach and model that we need to manage our disagreements with civility and respect.

Marcia Mofson, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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