How to discuss the election with your family: 'Keep it moving gracefully'

Erin Donnelly
·10 min read
Mental health experts share how to discuss the election with relatives without it getting heated. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Mental health experts share how to discuss the election with relatives without it getting heated. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

Many predicted that the 2020 election was going to be chaotic and plagued with uncertainty — and sure enough, here we are. Americans of all political stripes are processing feelings ranging from despair to cautious optimism over races both big and small, and on top of it all, the pandemic has many of us either quarantined in close quarters with family members who may not share our political views, or staring down the gauntlet of one very tense holiday season. Politics is bound to come up in conversation — and things could get uncomfortable as we tackle sensitive topics with relatives of all ages.

“It's first important to acknowledge that everyone is managing a very tense election and with already limited psychological resources,” Rheeda Walker, a Houston-based psychologist, professor and researcher, tells Yahoo Life. “That means that we'll fumble through, not say 'just the right thing' and maybe even feel defeated when we attempt to talk to friends and loved ones.”

But she and other mental health experts say that there are ways to strike up productive dialogues around the election, from reassuring younger members of the family trying to make sense of what’s happening, to setting boundaries with that one in-law who delights in pushing your political buttons, to offering emotional support to anyone who’s going through their own stressful struggles brought on by this news cycle.

Read on for advice on keeping conversations healthy, not heated.

Kids who need clarity — or just cheering up

Whether your brood includes a first-time voter who may be feeling disillusioned, or younger children who have been following the action with a passive interest, but are confused by the lack of clear-cut answers, teen, adolescent, child and family psychologist Dr. Barbara Greenberg assures parents that this situation could be an opportunity to impart some important life lessons.

“One positive thing here is you get to talk to your kids about ambiguity,” says Greenberg, who notes that if a child ‘has interest [in politics[, they’re old enough to understand” these concepts.

“People of all ages have an extremely hard time dealing with ambiguous situations,” she adds. “So this is a teaching moment here for all of us, to not only sit with ambiguity and feelings of being uncertain, but to teach our kids that sometimes there will be situations where you don’t get a clear answer, and you have to be able to tolerate ambiguity. It’s uncomfortable, but we have to be able to tolerate uncomfortable feelings.”

A young person may also be feeling let down by some election outcomes that didn’t go their way. Again, Greenberg tells Yahoo Life this is an opportunity to have another difficult but necessary conversation on the inevitability of occasional disappointment, which she calls “an integral part of the fabric of our lives.”

“Just like this is a lesson in tolerating ambiguity, it’s a lesson that we don’t always get instant results, and we often don’t get the results that we like,” she explains. “So this is a good way to think about, and learn to deal with, disappointment. A lot of our kids and teens have a lot of difficulty with dealing with disappointment but in fact, most people that present for therapy have experienced disappointment.”

In fact, parents themselves may be having those same negative feelings. How they express that frustration, anger or sadness, however, can set the tone for how their kids process their own emotions, so it’s important to keep dramatic impulses in check.

“You let them know that you too are disappointed, but be very careful that you do that in an emotionally regulated sort of way,” Greenberg advises. “Because your kids will pick up on whatever you’re modeling ... We have to just be very mindful of how we’re displaying our disappointment. We have to show our kids that we go on with the structure of our day despite having experienced the disappointment. That’s what resiliency is.”

Walker, meanwhile, says she put this into practice within her own family.

“As a mom who happens to be a clinical psychologist, I did give our son a 'heads up' that there is a chance that the election doesn't go as we hope,” she tells Yahoo Life. “It's a life lesson for children to know that things don't always go our way. We are only responsible for what we can control like voting, volunteering for campaigns, volunteering to work at polls and helping others with their voting plans. It's rarely helpful to let ourselves get distracted by things that are out of our control. When things don't go our way, we can instead zero in on what we can do to contribute to a better society going forward.”

Being honest with kids about ambiguity and disappointment can help them come to terms with their feelings about the political climate. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Being honest with kids about ambiguity and disappointment can help them come to terms with their feelings about the political climate. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

The loved one who’s struggling

As we wrestle with our own stress, therapist, speaker and author Lauren Cook tells Yahoo Life that it’s important to look out for loved ones who may also be having a hard time dealing with big emotions this election cycle: anxiety, anger, despair, hopelessness, and so on.

“The best thing we can do when a family member is struggling is to simply sit and listen,” she says. “Rather than defend or deflect, allow the person to express what they're feeling in the moment.”

Cook recommends keeping an eye out for red-flag reactions or behaviors that may require extra care.

“If someone is having a panic attack, invite them to lay down, breathe deeply, and put a cold compress over the eyes,” she says. “If someone wants to have an angry outburst, it's best to step into a quiet room and step away from others. If you notice someone talk about thoughts of suicide or hurting others, this is a sign that it's time to engage professional help.”

The spouse who sees things differently

They say opposites attract, but that may not necessarily extend to political affiliations; remember the 73-year-old woman who divorced her husband after he voted for President Trump in 2016? But while it’s easy to feel unsupported or even betrayed if your partner doesn’t approach important issues with the same passion, or values, Cook says it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, assuming you can address these differences from a place of love and respect.

“Every couple is different when it comes to the amount of disagreement they can handle,” she notes. “The key is open communication and boundary setting. Know that it's OK to not agree completely with your partner. In fact, there's no person on this planet who would agree with you completely on every issue. That's part of being human. See if you can give one another grace and space as you navigate political differences in your relationship.”

In many cases, it’s not a partner’s politics that are the problem — it’s their family’s. If your in-laws tend to ruffle your feathers with their political beliefs, setting some ground rules with your partner before a visit can help you avoid conflicts that might spill over into your romantic relationship. At the same time, Cook warns against using your partner as a buffer or go-between to shield you from unsolicited opinions.

“Talk with your partner about how you'd like to navigate familial differences in advance,” she says. “Generally, it's not always helpful to put others ‘in the middle’ as a form of self-protection unless that person wants to be in that role. This is how we can get into codependent territory if we're not careful. You can set your own boundaries and choose how you show up in each space that you're in, including when you're with in-laws.”

Relatives on the opposite end of the political spectrum

Share a family tree, but not any political values? We all have that outspoken family member — a cousin, grandparent, in-law — whose opinions can clear a room like a rat at a dinner party. Or maybe it’s more benign, but still upsetting: the kid brother who didn’t bother to vote, for instance, or parents whose voting records you see at odds with how they raised you. If you know their company will rile you up, or that any topical discussion will turn into a debate, one approach, says Cook, is to establish early on that politics is off the table.

“It may be most helpful if you set a mental boundary to not discuss politics with family,” she says. “If you're concerned that politics will come up regardless, you may want to agree as a family to not talk about it as the time together begins. If a political dialogue does begin, you can always step away from the conversation. Remember, you choose how much you want to engage.”

Considering which family members you open up to can also make a difference. Are you sparring with someone — say, a sibling — you can debate and then easily move on sans hurt feelings? Or are you crossing an unspoken line in a more fragile relationship?

“Know who you're speaking with and know how it will be for you if they openly disagree with you,” suggests Cook. “If you can handle them disagreeing with you, then feel free to share that disappointment. However, if you get the sense that their disagreement will be further activating and invalidating, it may be best to process with others.”

Greenberg, meanwhile, does think there’s value in addressing even the most sensitive of subjects, so long as it doesn’t feel like picking a fight.

“I’m not going to say avoid political discussions,” she says. “Try with dignity and graciousness to keep the conversations moving with grace. I always say, ‘Keep it moving.’ It’s uncomfortable? Keep it moving gracefully. Listen to people; try as hard as you can to listen to what they have to say, and tell them what your opinions are, and back up your opinions. The greatest challenge is to keep it from devolving into a big fight. It’s very tough. ... We have to be able to have discourse. We have to be able to have conversations. it’s really challenging. but try to do it, if possible, with emotions tucked in.”

Me, myself and I

Any productive conversations depend on you being able to establish limits out of consideration for your own well-being. Ultimately, says Walker, prioritizing our own mental health has to come before trying to challenge a loved one’s beliefs.

“We cannot control what other people think,” she says. “We cannot control their values. We can share with others what we see as important and why, but it can be hard to change someone's mind especially if they have emotional attachment to their beliefs. Imagine someone trying to change your mind about something that is very important to you. See how that works?

“We may have to choose to distance ourselves from others who have very different beliefs, but we only frustrate ourselves and antagonize others when we fight to control matters for which we have no control. It's OK instead to take control of our own peace of mind.”

Walker adds that, in these turbulent times, it’s good to give yourself some grace if you botch an interaction, or let a debate go too far.

“We need not despair because this is what limited psychological bandwidth can do,” she says. “We can always apologize and/or acknowledge the mishap, ask for patience and try again, because our relationships are important to us.”

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