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How to discuss the final presidential debate with your teen

Today’s generation of teens are more politically active than ever, and they’re focused on issues such as gender and racial equality, sustainability, gun restrictions and voter registration.

Surveys show that young people believe they have the power to make change in the country, but at the same time, politics bring teens tremendous amounts of stress. 80% of teens say politics causes them stress and 33% report politics has recently damaged close relationships.

With the election less than 2 weeks away, political anxiety only heightens.

Amid an especially heated and divisive political season, it’s important to help our teens learn how to have healthy conversations about politics. Managed well, a thoughtful conversation about politics can be intellectually connecting and help reduce anxiety.

President Trump and Biden’s final debate offers an opportunity to sit down and have a connecting conversation with your teen. Here are some tips for how to have a great viewing and conversation:

#1: Research the issues before hand and pick one you’re each most excited to discuss

The six topics for Thursday’s debate are:

  • Fighting COVID-19

  • American Families

  • Race in America

  • Climate Change

  • National Security

  • Leadership

Rather than characterizing candidates as inherently good or bad, focus on the issues. Discuss each issue: what are the facts, why it is important, and what’s each candidate’s perspective. You can also consider discussing what about each candidate’s communication style worked well to identify examples of healthy disagreement. Encourage teens to research the issues and back up their political opinions with facts before the discussion.

#2: Be clear about your intentions for this conversation

Your teen is growing up in an unprecedented political climate, and issues children are exposed to in adolescence shape their political involvement. What should they take away from this experience and how do you want to guide them? Share your intention with your teen for having this conversation. It might sound something like, “I know politics can be stressful, it certainly has been for me, and I’d like to learn more about your viewpoints on the issues being raised. Would you be interested in watching the Thursday night debate and discussing together?”

Be clear that it’s not about debating sides, but rather having a dialogue to better understand each other, regardless of specific political beliefs.

#3 Listen to understand, not agree

It may be frustrating if your teen picks up a polarizing and opposing political viewpoint, but this is part of their experiments with more individual expression as they grow into their identity. Start the conversation by asking open-ended questions like “What are your friends saying about the election? What have you heard adults saying about this issue? What do you think?” about the issues to initiate a dialogue.

Then, once they’re sharing, listen! Give your teen your full attention when they explain their views. Set the scene by avoiding phone and other distractions, and don’t interrupt or share your own views while they are talking. Acknowledge their feelings with, “Thanks for sharing that with me, I’m hearing you’re frustrated.” If you’re not sure what they’re feeling or thinking, feel free to ask clarifying questions!

Express to your teen that you value and want to fully understand their opinions and reactions by rephrasing what you think you heard, and repeating it back to make sure you’ve got it right. It might sound like, “So, I’m hearing you say … is that right?”

#4 Embrace disagreements with respectful curiosity

When it is your turn to speak, acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of both arguments rather than judging them as right or wrong, and look up relevant information if you disagree.

If you disagree, do so with respect and stick with “I statements” like, “I think it makes sense why people think this. For me…” Add a touch of curiosity with phrases like, “What do you think of my perspective?” to invite further discussion.

And remember, it is okay if conflict arises, it can serve as a catalyst for understanding and personal growth!

#5 Have clear boundaries, know when to take a time out

If you find yourself reaching emotional overwhelm, note it and share your boundaries in a healthy way with phrases like, “Wow, I’m feeling myself get more emotional than I’d like to be right now. Can we take a 5 min break?” Similarly if it’s your teen that’s overwhelmed, “I want to finish hearing your thoughts on this topic. It seems like you might be getting emotional about the discussion. Would it be helpful to take a 5 min break?”

Instead of pointing blame at “who said what”, clearly state what is feeling uncomfortable for you (using “I statements”) and what you need to establish boundaries. It can be a great way to model for your teen how to set and maintain boundaries.

Bonus: Talk to your teen like an adult, they love it

When we spoke with teens, 83% said they wish their parents would talk to them more about “deep stuff” and that they would reach out to their parents more for help if they knew their parents treated them as intellectual equals.

Conversations about politics are necessarily “intellectual” and an excellent way to model healthy disagreements. So focus on showing respect and kindness toward your teen as you would to another adult friend. Phrases such as “You're crazy for thinking that” or “You have no idea what you're talking about” make teens feel disrespected and invalidated. When you acknowledge your teen’s perspectives, you’re empowering them to have confidence in their opinions and ability to share them with others.

Here are some resources for teens to learn about political issues:

We can’t wait to hear how the conversation goes for you. For more ideas on fostering great conversations with your teen, join a Cherish parenting circle on the topic!


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