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In the new year, model empathy and compassion at home

While it is important to continue to espouse our ideals and to voice our concerns, it is equally important to recognize that our voices, when overheard or not fully understood, can have dramatic effects on our children.

Today's guest blogger is  Stephen Leff, PhD, clinical psychologist and co-director of the Violence Prevention Initiative at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Periods of change can lead to feelings of anxiety and apprehension. With a transition in leadership in the White House imminent, those who are concerned may choose to express those thoughts and beliefs verbally or through social media. We may not realize the detrimental impact that our words and actions can have on our children, families, and communities.

While it is important to continue to espouse our ideals and to voice our concerns, it is equally important to recognize that our voices, when overheard or not fully understood, can have dramatic effects on our children. Consider what a child hears when her father says that he will likely lose his job as a result of an election. Or when someone suggests that people of a certain race, ethnicity, or religious background are inherently dangerous, and parents are not sure how best to talk with their children about this, so they say nothing.

Our kids trust the parents and adults around them to be positive role models and sources of guidance. They can take words they hear at home and bring them to school without understanding the context in which they were initially delivered. This impacts the school environment as students may no longer feel safe, and this negative stress on a school can affect the learning environment for all students.

Thus, we need to move beyond the negative, to move beyond the complaining and instead move forward in a positive way, remembering all of the good that we can do on behalf of our kids regardless of our political leanings or reactions to the election.  For instance, we can support and encourage our children to join activities through school, a place of worship, or a community group to learn teamwork and compromise. Look for opportunities to volunteer as a family to support those less fortunate or those coming from a challenging background. Advocate in a personal or professional capacity on behalf of kids who need our support, such as youth struggling with disability or illness.

A key word here is empathy. Considering and trying to understand someone else's thoughts, feelings or perspectives can be taught and practiced. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Violence Prevention Initiative is doing this in our elementary and middle school-based bullying prevention programs and also among our own clinical and non-clinical staff.

We work to prevent aggression and violence by creating best practice programs that teach kids' empathy and perspective-taking and by also systematically training CHOP staff to provide respectful and supportive care for patients and families who have been impacted by violence, loss, and other traumas.

The role that parents and other significant adults in kids' lives play is crucial for their healthy development. Kids are not born with a pre-determined set of ideals. Rather, these are influenced and shaped over time by many factors, including life experiences and interpersonal relationships. It is therefore more important than ever for we adults to model empathy, respecting the perspectives and very real-life experiences of our fellow Americans. Some may feel racism and equality are paramount issues because of their life experience, while others prioritize saving their job and way of life. The trauma behind each of these issues is real and should be respected.

With a new administration coming in next month, we have an important choice to make – to embrace vitriol and negativity, or to demonstrate compassion for others, leadership within our homes and communities, and to work to have respectful communication with all Americans regardless of backgrounds, ideology, or roles within the community. The character of our children depend on how we all choose to move forward. We should remember that they are always watching our actions and listening to our words.

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