Three rules to teach coping with political stresses: Be kind, take turns and be respectful

By By Dr. Peter Faustino & Dr. Kari Oyen
Dr. Peter Faustino
Dr. Kari Oyen

Dr. Faustino is a school psychologist in New York. Dr. Oyen is assistant professor of school psychology at the University of South Dakota. 

We tell children to “be kind,” “take turns” and “be respectful.” These are just a few of the most basic social skills that parents teach their children. Sadly, throughout this political season, parents are struggling to explain adult behaviors modeled on television by leaders. This can be especially problematic for children who interpret words very literally and see adults as the mechanism to interpret the world around them.  

Children with autism often have differently developed language skills, which can lead to misunderstandings. This holds true across settings – at home, in school, in the media they consume and social interactions they observe. They also often have challenges communicating nonverbally, such as through hand gestures, eye contact or facial expressions. When you are supporting your autistic child or family member to understand current events in politics, you’ll find that common co-occurring disorders like phobias, rumination, hyper-vigilance (feeling shell-shocked), rigid routines, avoidance behaviors and a resistance to change (ideas or behaviors) mean they need more support. 

Here are some things that you can do to help children interpret stressful messages: 

Consistency is key. When messages are repeated consistently, especially across different settings, children are better able to take in the language they hear and understand its meaning. Be sure that your voice is the one your children remember, even if what they see on TV is more sensational. Be sure to highlight behaviors, values and key messages that balance any negative messages they are hearing elsewhere. Further, when children hear these messages without a caring adult unpacking the content with them, it can leave them with an unsettled, anxious narrative that can be quite disruptive to their everyday functioning. 

Reinforce what you want to see. Positive reinforcement works! Be observant for even the smallest of good behaviors and be quick to praise (i.e., reinforce) the behaviors you want to see more of in your children. If your child begins modeling poor behavior choices (e.g. yelling, interrupting, name calling), this is a great chance to offer substitute behaviors that you prefer. Practice and role-play how you want your children to act. 

Create a home safety zone. Children need time to process new or conflicting messages. This takes time. Don’t expect new behaviors or a change in behaviors to occur immediately. Instead offer a safe space for children to play, unwind and be devoid of too much stimuli. A home safety zone is where they can go to take a break and just be themselves for a short period of time. The world is a complicated and confusing place. Be sure your child has a safe space to retreat to when they need. 

Look for nonverbal cues. All behavior has meaning. For children with less neurotypical language abilities, observe their nonverbal behavior. By watching for changes in sleep, frustration tolerance, stimming, repetitive behaviors and other clues, you will be able to determine the influence on your child of the TV programming, political messaging, commercial advertisements or discussions at school they are absorbing. 

Figure out the motivation behind the behavior. While this can be a challenge for all parents, developing an educated guess about what is driving a behavior can lead to solutions. Be prepared to change your guess or gather information that confirms it. For example: If your child seems anxious, consider what they heard or watched that day. News programs in particular convey messages that can resonate with children far longer than with adults, so try to limit the amount of news images that your child views in the day if you find it affects them.  

Pay attention to your child’s triggers (or political sensitivities). While we often talk about sensory sensitivities in children with ASD, political triggers can be just as upsetting. When a child is knowledgeable and passionate about a topic, any challenge to their worldview could unleash a barrage of emotions. When children hear upsetting messages, sit with them and talk through what they are seeing in a developmentally appropriate way. Walk through the facts, dispel any rumors and try to explain the other person’s perspective. Answer questions to the best of your ability about what is happening in the world, and more importantly, talk to them about what THEY can DO to help in the situation. For the purposes of the political season, perhaps they can write and/or speak with local decision-makers about what is important to them. Perhaps they can raise awareness in their school about a particular issue. Review small ways they can be a part of the solution, like calling lawmakers, researching issues that matter to them or writing letters to decision-makers in the community. These may seem like simple things, but they can really help a child feel empowered and make abstract issues seem more concrete.  

Make time for yourself. Laughter is a powerful source of self-care. Consider starting a positive morning routine. This can be as simple as having quiet time with a cup of coffee and as elaborate as having a checklist of activities, such as exercise, journaling or mindfulness to start your day so that you, as an adult, can handle the day. Mental health in adults can increase the well-being of children around them. Dr. Bruce Perry indicates that “A dysregulated adult cannot calm anyone down.” And if you find yourself struggling, reach out to a mental and behavioral health professional to ask for help and advice. 

Throughout 2020, the nation has been witness to many examples of dysregulated adults. On our screens, we’ve seen politicians yelling, COVID-19 case counts and death counts tick up and images of hurricanes and wildfires raging. These are all stressful messages that we as families are having a hard time making sense of, but they can be particularly difficult for children. This is where you, as caregivers, can be a critical part of the solution to help explain and calm anxious kids.  

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, sharing a message of hope, calm and empowerment to others is a critical model to set for your family. Even when we may have fundamental inequity and real hardship that surround us each day, we need to be mindful of how our actions impact the actions of others.  

When we take the time to help children make sense of the world around them, we are helping the next generation of adults to be better at coping with stressful demands. 

Autism Speaks offers two resources to help you navigate talking about politics and exercise your voting rights: 

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