“Affirm their strong feeling –‘I can hear you feel really strongly about this, as so many of us do—but I want to focus on what brings us together. Can we talk about some issues where we have some common ground?’”
Many people headed home for the holidays will have more on their minds than snagging the right gifts for friends and family. This year’s polarized political climate has many people anxiously anticipating conversations with loved ones who hold opposite views.
Jennifer Miller, a regular expert contributor to the Pearson-sponsored NBC Education Nation’s Parent Toolkit, has some advice for families entering the fray.
“If you’re going to initiate a political conversation, there are some ways that you can go about it that are more constructive,” says Miller. “If you’re worried about others initiating a political conversation, there are ways you can deal with it where you maintain gratitude for the relationships without creating unneeded stress.”
While these sorts of discussions can be fraught, they also present important learning opportunities for kids. If you do it right, says Miller, “then you are modeling social and emotional intelligence in the highest form.”
Tips for the Table
For 20 years, Miller has worked with adults to help them become more effective with children through social and emotional learning. Her tips for tough holiday conversations can help adults show children by example how to disagree with civility and respect.
Affirm their feelings.
“If someone brings up a heated political conversation and you are getting uncomfortable, you can return to safety,” explains Miller. First, she says, “Affirm their strong feeling –‘I can hear you feel really strongly about this, as so many of us do—but I want to focus on what brings us together. Can we talk about some issues where we have some common ground?’”
Own your feelings.
“A lot of us have strong feelings” about political issues, Miller acknowledges. If these conversations come up, she says, “Own your feelings— ‘I’ve been feeling so sad or so frustrated.” Then you own your role— “I’ve felt helpless, but I’ve taken some action and here’s what I’ve done.” Then get curious about other people’s feelings and other people’s roles. “How have you felt about this situation? What action have you taken in this situation?”
Plan for the challenges.
“The key to being successful,” notes Miller, “is to plan for the challenges. How do you notice when you get triggered— do you get heated? do you get shaky? What are your triggers and what are you going to do with yourself when you get triggered? Are you able to say ‘how about we redirect the conversation?’—or are you so triggered that you say ‘I need to use the restroom’, or ‘I really need to get some fresh air and breathe?’”
“If you are able to model those self-management tools along with having an intelligent dialogue with family members,” she says, “that’s a powerful model for your kids.”
Even if you are trying to avoid these conversations, cautions Miller, you should be careful about ignoring something you’ve heard. “People are going to see your red face or your sullen expression. I think it’s better to just be honest and own your own feelings and role in the situation instead of trying to hide. These are people who love you, who are part of your family and they ultimately care about you and your well-being.”
Keep kids calm.
If children start arguing amongst themselves in an unproductive way, “It’s important for adults to intervene and take a cooldown moment,” says Miller—like taking them on a walk to get some fresh air. The goal, she says, is getting kids to breathe and calm down, saying “We don’t name call, we don’t criticize other people’s character because we care about each other and we have to show respect for one another.” Other strategies she suggests for keeping kids engaged in more collaborative ways are doing art projects and listening to music together.
Remember why you’re together.
The holidays are about gratitude, Miller reminds us, and “Fear and anxiety cannot coexist with the feeling of gratitude.” Instead, she asks, “How can we think in advance about the positive attributes of each family member before you enter the room?”
Jennifer Miller, M.Ed. has twenty years of experience working with adults to help them become more effective with children through social and emotional learning. She is a regular expert contributor to the Pearson sponsored NBC Education Nation’s Parent Toolkit. She is the author and illustrator of the site, Confident Parents, Confident Kids. She coaches, writes and speaks nationally. She lives with her husband and nine-year-old son in Columbus, Ohio.