Politics has always been a controversial topic, but rarely has our political climate been as divisive as it is right now. Not only has society become more politically polarized over the last two decades, but the way we express our views has also changed. Political discussion has largely moved away from policy and instead become an issue of morality, with both sides of the debate seeking to dominate the other in emotionally charged exchanges. Sometimes referred to as the rise of political sectarianism, this trend is marked by a tendency for individuals on each side of the political spectrum to view members of the opposing faction as morally inferior or wholly alien.
While the hostility generated by political polarization is evident in our workplaces, social circles, and social media feeds, it’s particularly prevalent in homes with teenage children. Adolescents are becoming much less likely to adopt the same political stance as their parents, often pivoting away from traditional values to embrace a more radical perspective by the time they enter college. As a result, many parents and teens find themselves in deadlock over political views – to the point where political disagreements have become a source of chronic conflict or estrangement in a significant percentage of households.
If you and your teen are currently experiencing strife related to political differences, know that there are ways to bridge the distance in your relationship before it does further harm. Using targeted communication strategies – like the six outlined below – can help you shift the tone of political discourse to one of respect, understanding, and collaboration.
6 Techniques to Use When Discussing Politics with Your Teen
1. Educate yourself about the issues that matter to Gen Z.
Research indicates that a pronounced generational divide exists between Gen Z and their elders (i.e., Gen X and Baby Boomers) on multiple issues, even among members of the same political affiliation. Whether your teen identifies as a liberal, conservative, or independent, he (or she) probably cares deeply about climate change, financial inequality, and racial injustice. Gen Z conservatives are more than twice as likely to say that black individuals are usually treated less fairly than whites, for example, when compared to their older counterparts. They also believe the government should take an active role in fighting climate change and addressing social inequality. (Older conservatives, by contrast, typically favour minimal government intervention.) Among left-leaning majority of Gen Z, these views are likely to be much more pronounced.
Taking the time to understand your teen’s views – and the socioeconomic forces that shaped them – will help you relate to their point of view and have more informed discussions. It will also show you that your child isn’t eschewing your values intentionally; he’s just responding to broader social trends.
2. Try to find common ground.
Rather than focusing on which side of the political spectrum your child occupies, highlight specific policies or issues you can both agree on. This process may seem challenging if you are accustomed to arguing over your teen’s views, but there are still multiple areas where teens and adults (and liberals and conservatives) typically agree. Most of Gen Z, Gen X, and the Boomer generation feel that financial and childcare duties should be shared equally between partners, for instance. A majority of people from all age groups also believe that having more women involved in politics would benefit society.
When you have time to converse one-on-one with your teen, ask for their opinion on various issues using a calm, friendly tone of voice. Listen to their perspective without contradicting or interrupting, then identify common points of interest (or areas where you might be willing to compromise). For example, maybe you and your child disagree on how governments should address climate change, but you both agree that it’s a genuine problem. Once you’ve established this common ground, you might suggest reading books about climate change together or finding ways to draw attention to the issue in your local community. The more you and your teen can learn to work together, the less your differences will divide you.
Likewise, just listening to your teen will probably be perceived as a conciliatory move on your part. Young adults have a strong desire to be heard and acknowledged, particularly by the adults they care about, but their views are frequently discounted owing to their age. Talking to your child in the same way you would speak to another adult will convey respect, which your child will probably mirror back to you.
3. Acknowledge your child’s good intentions.
When you must confront an issue that you and your child profoundly disagree on, avoid trying to convince him that you’re right. Even if you believe the weight of evidence is on your side, attempting to change your child’s mind will almost certainly backfire. Establishing separate, divergent views from parents is a normal part of adolescence, so the more you argue with your teen, the more he will feel compelled to dig his heels in. Furthermore, pushing your agenda will make an already tense situation more strained.
Instead of arguing with your child, remind yourself that she isn’t trying to be oppositional or rebellious; she’s just standing up for what she thinks is right. As a generation of digital natives, Gen Z has witnessed global injustice from a very young age. This exposure has created a deep-seated need to address the world’s problems and make society a more equitable place, which is reflected in the views of many young adults.
By acknowledging your child’s good intentions, you can validate his perspective without necessarily agreeing with his opinions. For example, you might say something like, “I wouldn’t handle that problem the same way you would, but I can appreciate the amount of compassion you have for immigrants. It shows what a good person you are.”
4. Empower your teen to drive change.
Because so much of Gen Z’s life has taken place online (and many Gen Zers aren’t yet old enough to vote), members of this generation are often unsure of how to enact change in the real world. This can be seen in the fact that environmental activism has declined over time, despite a majority (70%) of young people saying they’re very concerned about the environment.
Teens’ lack of community engagement is problematic for multiple reasons: First and foremost, it deprives them of the opportunity to establish a sense of their role and value in society, which harms their confidence, self-worth, and developing identity. Feeling powerless to enact real change also increases the likelihood that a teen will become overly reliant on social media as a place to assert his views. In turn, this will expose him to more extremist outlooks, hostility, and misinformation – all of which run rampant online. Your teen may then redirect the negativity he’s absorbed online into his personal life by arguing with friends and family members.
To give your teen a constructive outlet for his beliefs, look for ways he can effectively channel them into real-world action. Suggest applying for relevant volunteer positions, encourage him to submit opinion pieces to local newspapers, or look for career paths that potentially align with the issues he cares most about. You should also limit your teen’s access to social media to reduce the amount of political discourse he’s exposed to. Taking these steps will decrease your teen’s desire to argue and cast you in a supportive light, even if you don’t agree with his stance.
5. Know when to call a truce.
Occasionally, parents and teens find themselves repeatedly circling the same issues, despite knowing they will never see eye-to-eye. When this happens, the best approach is often to declare a voluntary moratorium on political discussion until you can find a professional mediator. Sit down with your teen and explain that you don’t want to allow your differing beliefs to interfere with the bond you share. Then, ask him if he’ll “agree to disagree” and drop the topic for the time being so you can both cool down.
After calling a truce, focus on rebuilding your relationship with your adolescent. By putting politics aside and engaging in other, more mutually fulfilling discussions and activities with your child, you’ll help him keep the subject in perspective. With your guidance, he’ll realize that our political affiliation is only one aspect of who we are; we have many other qualities and attributes that shape our identity. Not only will your relationship benefit from this understanding, but you’ll also show your child that it’s possible to get along with people who don’t share his beliefs.
6. Seek professional family counselling.
If you and your teen’s differing political views continue to create tension in your relationship – even after you employ the strategies above – family therapy may be necessary to resolve your differences. Research shows that bringing people together in a safe setting and involving them in structured, mediated dialogue increases understanding and reduces estrangement between those with opposing political views. A family therapist will also advise you on how to strengthen your relationship with your child and repair damaged trust.
Though trying therapy may feel like a big step, it’s better to act early, while your child’s views are still actively developing. By taking proactive steps to fight political polarization at home, you’ll give your child the tools they need to cultivate harmonious relationships with people from all walks of life. You’ll also help protect them from harmful and divisive influences, so they can form a balanced, educated outlook that’s uniquely their own.