How to talk to kids about the election and fraught politics

Finley Vong, 3, helps her mother, Tiffany Anderson, drop a ballot into a drop box Wednesday in Seattle.

(CNN)When I was a kid in the 1980s, politics held minimal appeal. Watching the candidates, nearly always two white men talk about issues, would inevitably make my eyes glaze over. Hearing the grown-ups in my life talk about their preferred candidates held little appeal. I sensed that elections and voting were important but not something I had to really worry about.

Now, some 30 years later, it's impossible for my kids to not pay attention. Their lives have been deeply impacted by the decisions made by someone far away. Their parents are emotional, the politicians are emotional and sometimes, adults express these emotions in a manner children are all too familiar with.
The election season civic lessons imparted to me as a child no longer feel adequate. Today's kids have big questions and big feelings about this election year, and it's up to parents to help them process.

    Children are experiencing politics more intensely

    There have been few moments in recent history in which children's lives have been so directly affected by politics -- think the 1918 flu pandemic, the Depression, World War I and World War II, the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
    "I think a lot about how children are on the front lines of all major political challenges today," said Tamara Mann Tweel, program director at the Teagle Foundation and co-founder of Civic Spirit, a civic education initiative for middle and high school teachers and their students.
    Two-year-old Aissatou Barry accompanies her father at an early voting center at Union Market Tuesday in Washington, DC.
    "They have to do active shooter drills, they are directly confronted with climate change, and they are truly on the front lines of Covid, with school closures. Politics are not abstract for them. They're corporeal," she said.
    This reality could help students grow into more active citizens as they see firsthand how decisions made from on high can affect them personally, Mann Tweel said.
    But there is also a risk of trauma. "This could also end up being destabilizing and overwhelming (to children). And the level of hostility can be scary."
    Then there is the political discourse, which has changed substantially in the era of President Donald Trump. My husband and I put on the first presidential debate assuming our 7-year-old would turn to a book or Legos.
    He was, like much of the nation, transfixed. What's more, he attempted to psychoanalyze some of the name-calling using the same tools I had taught him to digest playground spats. "Mom, sometimes when someone calls someone else dumb, it's because they're worried about being dumb themselves."
    The debate unsettled him, and I felt I myself was to blame. I had, absentmindedly, allowed him to witness a complicated and uncomfortable chapter in American politics without giving him the practical or emotional tools to understand it.

    Give them a sense of control

    It's important to not let the anger and noise remain anger and noise, Mann Tweel said. "You need to help them see how they are part of a country that they want to improve." The key is teaching them that, even though they can't vote, they do have some agency.
    You could start with a conversation about how it feels to go to school during the pandemic and what they would want elected officials to know about it, she suggested. They could even write a letter to local politicians expressing their fears and frustrations.

    Help them understand the rules

    Children also benefit from understanding that, just like in their home, there are rules in the United States, and even our leaders aren't always free to do whatever they want.