Shaming, bullying, name-calling, silencing, and other forms of abuse among children and teenagers can take an especially sharp turn when exacerbated by a negative political or bigoted atmosphere. For adult role models, such as teachers, parents, and other prominent adults it can be difficult to know how to talk to kids about the current political climate. The divisive temperature keeps rising and our children may find themselves confused and worried about their family and friends who are at risk of being emotionally or physically harmed and/or displaced.
When political passions and biases are inflamed, divisive political issues inevitably enter the schools as well. Teenagers, in particular, may know enough about politics to become passionate about positions or candidates while lacking the maturity to avoid being intemperate or prejudiced. This combination may lead them to act in hurtful ways toward others.
Bullying is not a new problem facing children and adolescents. However, the current political environment adds a layer of complexity to it. The school yard, for example, can become an arena for heated debate. Like other forms of bullying, too much politicization can very well lead to political bullying and in some cases even violence. Extreme bullying can develop in this context and become particularly acrimonious. Not the mention that various online platforms may become the site for even more insidious and relentless bullying.
It can be hard to know how to handle political bullying when it arises. Children and adolescents are impacted by the environment around them. Adults have a responsibility to set a tone that helps children learn healthy coping mechanisms for managing emotions related to differences. Our tolerance and intolerance, even if intentions are benign, have an impact. If children hear negative comments from an admired and trusted adult, he or she will be influenced toward a similar way of thinking. Remember, children’s brains are developing for a long time before full maturation.
Even at full mental maturation, coping with the tensions that arise from political bullying is challenging. Our own feelings and biases get triggered, which can inadvertently cloud the atmosphere for young impressionable minds.
Addressing political bullying is an element of coping with bullying in general. Mindfulness and meditation training can help both in responding to bullying, as well as in preventing bullying:
- Mindfulness, especially mindful breathing, can enhance emotional regulation.
- Mindfulness and meditation can improve self-compassion and reduce self-doubt.
- Self-compassion itself is linked with reduced fear, lower self-criticism, higher connectedness, and increased well-being.
- Meditative mindfulness, together with self-compassion, puts the focus on self-growth, humanity, and kindness.
In addition to mindfulness and meditation, some approaches to regulating and discouraging political bullying in particular may include:
- Frequent and open conversations with your child or children. Teach and model tolerance and civility.
- Be age-appropriate and honest when answering a child’s questions. Be mindful of your biases and how that may impact a child’s view of the world.
- Teach children to stay out of aggressive confrontation. This can be a teaching opportunity for everyone. When triggered by the emotional unpleasantness that bullying incites, we go straight to primal defenses and it is hard to move into more rational ways of problem solving.
- Don't get caught in the whirlpool of escalating arguments. If your child is being taunted or bullied, they should treat political bullying as any kind of bullying: withdraw and report the incident to an adult (teacher, parent, or guardian) depending on where it occurred.
- Help tell the story of one’s community with positivity and plucky optimism: energize self-confidence as to withstand political bullying when it does occur. Administrators need to be involved at certain points and incidents officially reported.
- Use a broader family perspective to understand the injuries of bullying and start a healing process by co-constructing a narrative that fosters tolerance, positivity, and acceptance.
A marriage and family therapist (MFT) can be a wonderful resource in times of heightened political tensions that can lead to bullying. If you or your family feel overwhelmed, and disrupted by such tensions, you may benefit from seeking professional help. These are trying times for everyone, and working with a MFT, whose specificity is contextually relational, is a way to help the bully and the victim of bullying move toward healing.