The election season is in full swing, and discussion about the various candidates permeates our homes and schools. An election year is a wonderful time to teach children about the electoral process and issues being debated, such as immigration, terrorism, and healthcare. But the media and most voters also spend a lot of time and energy debating the character of the candidates, their behavior, and how they represent themselves, so the election process also presents parents with a plethora of unique opportunities to teach core social-emotional skills, such as empathy, emotion management, and social problem-solving while addressing topics such as accepting differences, dealing with gossip, bullying, and name-calling.
Name-Calling, Gossip, and Bullying
The ping-pong match of insults this election season is well underway! Many candidates are well known for their ability to confront and attack their opponents, not just on a political level but on a personal level, too. Yes, grown adults are doing more name-calling and bullying than might be experienced on a typical elementary-school playground.
Name-calling is often done in jest, but it can quickly go too far, and when it does, it becomes bullying. Young children may not understand that name-calling is a form of bullying. Using examples that surface in the debates, in interviews, and on the news can be a way to teach your child that calling someone a name, even if your child feels the person deserves it, is not okay and is bullying. Often when children call each other names, it’s the result of some sort of fight or misunderstanding. Teaching and modeling skills such as empathy, emotion regulation, and problem-solving will not only help your children avoid name-calling and bullying dynamics, but will also help give them the tools necessary to handle other challenges that may arise.
Skill 1: Empathy and Perspective Taking
When teaching children how to deal with gossip, name-calling, and bullying, it can be helpful to remind them about the power of empathy. Being empathetic is simply feeling or understanding what someone else is feeling. Having the ability to feel and use empathy in tough situations allows them to not only treat others with kindness and respect, but it may also lead them to intervene when another child is being bullied. These skills are crucial for healthy communication and interpersonal relationships.
The best way to teach empathy is to model it and use it when interacting with your child. So when your child is struggling, having a hard day, or misbehaving, the first response must be empathy, before anything else. Show your child you understand his or her feelings by saying things like, “It’s so hard when ___________,” or “You look/sound ___________.”
Responding with empathy communicates to your children that you see, hear, and understand them. Once children feel heard, they’ll not only be more willing to listen, but also more open to understanding and identifying with another person’s perspective.
Skill 2: Emotion Regulation
Research has discovered that lack of emotion regulation, emotional instability, or having emotional outbursts may make children more prone to being bullied. Here are some ways to help build your child’s ability to regulate emotions:
1. Accept your child’s emotions and respond with empathy while setting limits on behavior, for example, “Uh-oh, it looks like you don’t like that. It’s okay to be frustrated, but it’s not okay to call someone names.”
2. Encourage your children to talk about their feelings. Many parents feel uncomfortable with negative emotions, such as sadness or frustration. It’s imperative not to use statements such as, “You’re okay” or “There’s nothing to be sad/mad/scared about.” Instead, focus on using empathy and showing curiosity by asking questions, for example, “Uh-oh. You look sad to me. Is that how you’re feeling? Can you tell me what happened?”
3. Modeling emotion regulation can be one of the most powerful means of teaching it. Be mindful of how you handle your emotions in moments of frustration. Do you fly off the handle? If you want your children to have the ability to manage strong emotions, it’s essential that you model what it looks and sounds like.
Skill 3: Solving Problems
Recent studies have found that both children who bully and those who are bullied tend to lack problem-solving skills. Children who can recognize a problem, brainstorm solutions, and make connections between their behavior and choices and the consequences tend to avoid being drawn into bullying dynamics. Here are three simple steps you can use to guide your child through the problem-solving process:
1. Listen empathetically and validate your children’s thoughts and experiences. Encourage your children to tell their stories, for example, “Hey, buddy, tell me what happened . . . “ Then repeat or paraphrase what they said: “It sounds like you’re ______.”
2. Help your child label emotions. It’s important that you allow your children to label their own feelings instead of telling them how they feel. Listen in a way that communicates you’re paying attention and taking them seriously. It’s important that you don’t dismiss emotions as silly or unimportant.
3. Set limits on behaviors or choices while problem solving while acknowledging your children’s emotions, for example, “It’s okay to feel/want _____, but it’s not okay to do ______.” Once the limit is set, ask your children what they wanted or needed. Then ask them to brainstorm a few safe, respectful ideas to resolve the situation. Help them evaluate those ideas based on your family’s values, and then let them choose what they’ll do to fix the situation or try again.
This election season, embrace the opportunities presented for teaching valuable SEL skills. Empathy, emotion regulation, and problem solving can all be easily woven into your daily interactions with children as the presidential campaign continues. The conversations and work you do at home with your children are vital not only for helping them become socially aware, but also for building the relationship skills they need to be healthy, happy, and contributing individuals.