by Toby LaPlant
Political engagement isn’t just for people above the voting age.
Some of the most vocal and respected leaders of efforts to change public policy on education, climate change, LGBTQ rights, and more are people in their teens. Young people like Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and Gavin Grimm have addressed governments, organized protests, and founded programs to create the changes their generation want to see in the world. But they aren’t the only ones taking action. If your teen shows interest in creating change in their community or beyond, you can play a crucial role in helping them succeed.
Here are some key steps you can take to support a young activist in your life.
Take Teen Activism Seriously
Teens have more access than ever to information about the impact of elections, laws, and public policy on their lives. While it might be surprising to hear your teen express an opinion on a political issue, don’t assume that being young means they don’t know what they’re talking about. When they bring up an issue for discussion, take the opportunity to listen and to learn alongside them. Ask questions that create opportunities to share what they’ve read or seen. Connect with them through their passion. Help them identify topics for further research. Be respectful of their ideas and feelings. Show them they can talk to you – and can help them avoid online extremism.
Emotions often motivate teens to work for political change. Fear of climate change, sadness and anger about homelessness in their community, and frustration with the status quo are all legitimate feelings. Helping your teen manage their emotions around political issues is one of the most important ways you can show you care about their ability to achieve their goals. Talk to them about strategies for avoiding burn-out and how to handle moments of defeat. Remind them that caring about people and the world around them is a good thing, even when it’s hard.
Dealing with Disagreement
Not everyone welcomes teen involvement in politics. When teens speak up adults often tell them to wait their turn or that their demands are childish and unreasonable. Teens who express their beliefs on social media can become targets for harassment from their peers and adults – and even from the people in political offices they need to establish working relationships with.
Beyond basic social media safety, like reporting posts and blocking users, assist your teen in developing confidence and resilience in the face of bullying. If they want to speak to a group or a public official, you can act as their practice audience as they work out what they want to say. Help them come up with responses to challenges people might raise. Help them develop a personal policy for how to handle emotional reactions that might come their way when they stand up for what they believe in.
If your teen gets a lot of attention for their work, consider bringing in someone you trust to screen their email and social media for hate messages or threats. Be proactive about their privacy and safety. Have a plan for who to turn to if you need more help. Whether you just need to call on family members or reach out to law enforcement, have a network of resources in place for your teen before they need it.
The issues that motivate teens to take political action can be complex and far-reaching. Fighting climate change, addressing homelessness, increasing representation in media, and expanding access to education aren’t things they can achieve in one weekend.
Help your teen break their goals down into smaller projects. Putting together a list of organizations that are already working on the issue in your area is a good place for them to start. Or they can start by raising awareness in their school instead of aiming for a big audience right away. No matter what the strategy becomes, helping them define the first steps to take increases their chance of success. It will also help them continue forward.
Recognizing and Accepting Limits
No matter how skilled your teen is at managing their emotions and pacing themselves in their work for change, there will almost certainly come a time when they need to take a break from their activism. Assure your teen that just being a teen sometimes is nothing to feel guilty about. It’s okay to do something silly and fun instead of watching a heavy documentary film about a cause. Make sure your teen understands that they don’t have to be always on-call for their movement.
There may also come a point when your teen’s project reaches a natural conclusion. Sometimes – despite their best efforts – things just don’t work out the way they want. Public officials refuse to act, donations don’t arrive, and elections or polls turn out differently than expected. Prepare your teen for the possibility that the best way to achieve change might be to start fresh with a different goal. Also, assure them that it’s okay to step back from their activism for a while if they want to.
With Support, Teen Activism Can Work
Although they might not be old enough to vote, young activists deserve to be heard. When they have the respect of their elders and support in taking on the emotionally and physically demanding work of making change, a teen can have the same impact in their community that people twice their age have. As their parent, you can play a crucial role in keeping them safe, grounded, and strong as they speak up on the things that matter most to them.
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