Presidential elections always come with a bit of apprehension, but this year’s upcoming election carries significantly more heated rhetoric and tension. In recent years, psychologists and child experts have repeatedly documented how political discourse has had a marked impact on youth in America. This can manifest as general anxiety and worry about their families and lead to creating rifts in friend groups, much like politics sometimes does among adults. An element that adds stress to this dynamic for youth, in particular, is they have no say in the electoral process, and often find it difficult or confusing to understand. We’ve compiled some resources here to help you discuss the electoral process with your mentee, so that you may ease some of that stress and help them better understand how elections work.
The easiest entry point for a discussion like this is starting with values that are important to your mentee. Explore with them what is important to them and why. From there, you can collectively think about how those values play out in local and national politics. Are those values being addressed? How and why? Are people from their community being heard? If not, what can be done about that? This is a good place to learn about the political process. If your mentee has some questions about your personal political beliefs and you are unsure how to respond, you can always turn the question back to them and ask them how they feel about that topic and remember to stay age and developmentally appropriate in your conversations. If you still have questions about the best way to move forward with that discussion, when you have a moment and some privacy, check in with your mentor director on the best ways to navigate that conversation.
Luckily for us, a lot of youth-serving organizations have already put together all kinds of fantastic resources for students to learn about elections and politics. Scholastic has a wonderful website with some introductory lessons on how government works, democracy in action, and even some stories about laws that kids helped pass! This is a great resource for grades 4 – 6. Working with an even younger student? Here is a list of books to read, including for early readers, that help explain elections. Older students have covered some of the basic workings of elections and government in school, and are often more interested in ways that they can have a voice. PBS has an outstanding collection of resources for middle and high school students that delves into the deeper understandings of issues such as the party system, a history of voter rights, current party platforms, and even media literacy — a crucial tool for being able to navigate the abundance of information we encounter every day. Take some time to read through some of these articles together and discuss them with your mentee.
Remember, kids pick up a lot from the adults around them. They may have strong feelings about particular candidates or policies mostly because they’ve heard their adults speaking about them. If they voice a strong opinion, focus on their feelings and help them understand what it is that’s making them have a strong reaction to a policy or politician. They may not be able to vote, but there could be something the two of you could do together to take action on an issue that is important to them (maybe learning more about the topic together, learning how to be a better ally to someone who is being discriminated against, forming a club at school). Focusing on actions that you can take is beneficial for a lot of reasons: it builds leadership skills, it creates a sense of self-confidence, and it is practice for being an engaged community member as an adult.