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Let's Keep It Civil: Election Survival Tips for Families

by Brittney Schrick - October 29, 2018

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In our increasingly polarized political climate, election season can be especially stressful. You may feel as though you should walk on eggshells around certain people in your life or as though you cannot avoid nasty comments. 

Psychology Today suggests the following tips to help reduce election-related stress:

1. Limit media exposure including social media
2. Don’t discuss politics with those who will escalate the conversation to higher levels of conflict
3. Channel election related stress into local community and civic activities and volunteerism
4. Remember that life goes on after the election process is finished
5. And be sure to vote

These tips are wonderful for reducing immediate stress and getting through the season. However, something to keep in mind as you navigate the current political climate is: Who is watching you? Who in your life is taking their cues from you about how to speak to and about those with whom they disagree? Who is watching you to learn about the importance of exercising their right to vote? Who is listening to the things you say about candidates and those who support them? 

Kids take their cues from the adults in their lives. Their parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors, and even television personalities. They listen to and watch and absorb the words and body language and facial expressions of those around them. They take you at your word...and they often repeat those words. If you call someone who supports one candidate by a disparaging name, they hear and often repeat that. They trust you. They trust your judgment. So, when they find out that a friend's parent supports the candidate you have spoken badly about, they may assume that the friend's parent is whatever you called those who support that candidate. If they find out that their grandparents or aunt or family friend supports that candidate, they may make the same assumption. There are valid reasons why politics are a topic often avoided in polite conversation.  

So, what can we do to, not only survive the stress of elections but to influence those in our lives for good? 

In Education for a Civil Society, a book geared toward early childhood educators, Dr. Dan Gartrell discusses Five Democratic Life Skills necessary to educate a civil society. These skills, while intended as teaching tools for preschooler teachers, can be useful for all ages and for parents to teach their children.

1. Find acceptance as a member of the group and as a worthy individual: People like to belong, so they find groups with whom they share common interests or views. For children, this might mean playing the same game; for adults, it may be a political party or platform. Keep in mind that affiliation or alignment with a political party does not mean that all members of that party agree on all things. They are not all the same, just as all members of your group are not all the same. That can be difficult to remember sometimes.

2. Express strong emotions in non-hurting ways: High-stakes bring out high-emotion. The framing of this election by the candidates themselves together with the constant media and social media coverage make the stakes feel even higher. Keeping your emotional responses in check and avoiding the use of judgmental or hurtful language to describe the candidates or their supporters can go a long way to reduce your own stress and model positive emotion regulation for the young people in your life.

3. Solve problems creatively--both independently and in cooperation with others: Don't assume because you have always done something a certain way that it is the only way to do it. If watching the news every evening as a family is causing stress, take a hiatus until after the election. If social media is your typical way of interacting with friends but you are finding it difficult to manage at the moment, consider using other means of communication. Think outside the box, and you may be surprised by the results. 

4. Accept unique human qualities in others: As stated in number 1, we like to belong. Finding acceptance is a universal human desire, and often, as a symptom of that acceptance, we find ourselves viewing those outside our group as "other" or "different" or even "wrong" or "bad." It is important to be able to take another's perspective, and we cannot do that if we do not accept them as unique and worthwhile human beings. It is very easy to lump all members of another group together and assume that they have similar qualities beyond those that group them together, especially through the anonymity of social media. Understanding and accepting uniqueness and diversity improves interactions with others. 

5. Think intelligently and ethically: Consider your goals for your children and/or family. Most families hope their children will respond to situations in their lives ethically, kindly, and intelligently. In order for children to do that, they must be encouraged by the adults in their lives. Create an environment in your family where intelligent questions are responded to with intelligent answers. Help your child take the perspective of another person by asking them to explain their feelings or statements about others ("Why do you feel that way?"). Encourage ethical behavior by engaging in ethical behavior. That includes treating the people around you with respect. 

This also includes being an intelligent and ethical consumer of media. Be sure to double check sources of information before sharing it with others, especially if it is hard to believe, extreme, or inflammatory. Look for additional sources of the same story rather than accepting only one report. If you discover that you have shared a false or overblown news story, delete it from your social media or mention it to those you discussed it with. Although this may seem embarrassing at the time, it is the ethical thing to do. 

This election will be over soon, but the need for civil interaction with others doesn't end in November. These lessons we instill in our children and families about how to behave and treat one another last a lifetime.  

For more information: 

APA Election Stress summary:

NPR Discussion of Election Stress:

Psychology Today tips for reducing election stress: