How to talk with your teens about racial protests

image of hands holding sign that reads: Equality, justice, black lives matter
As protests around the country continue, your teen may want to become involved. (Image: Adobe Stock/Sebastian Stankiewicz, Boston Children’s Hospital)

As protests and outrage over racism and police brutality continues to unfold, many teens are adding their voices to the conversation. If your teen or young adult child is engaging online or in protests, you may be wondering how to talk with them about their interactions and make sure they stay safe, especially in the age of COVID-19.

“Teenagers are just starting to have their own independence and agency, so it’s important for parents to make sure they have a conversation about equality and racism, and to find ways to help kids ” says Dr. Kevin Simon, a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital. He offers a few tips on ways to help guide those conversations.

Encourage positive posting on social media

Most teens have their own social media accounts, any many parents aren’t always in the loop on what their teens are posting and reading. Dr. Simon encourages parents to talk with teens about creating positive messages, and not becoming mired in the more negative discussions that get posted.

“Posting their thoughts and ideas on social media is another way for teens to express themselves and feel like they have a sense of agency,” says Dr. Simon. “But it’s also important to make sure they are contributing in a positive way to the narrative and that you have some kind of mechanism in place to know what your kids are posting. If your teen is posting about the protests or structural inequity or how to be an antiracist, you don’t want to stifle that, and it’s an opportunity to bolster their part in being an agent of change.”

“Ask them to think about ways they can help make the system better for everyone, and then find a way to work towards that in their own community.”

– Dr. Kevin Simon

Help teens be agents of change

However, he says, while posting on social media and creating positive messages creates a positive message, it’s also important for parents to talk with kids about the need to do more than just post online. “You want to let your kids know that while posting positive messages and being part of online campaigns is great, it’s also important to do something more tangible in the real world to work as agents of change and to create a positive outcome that will be meaningful,” says Dr. Simon. “Ask them to think about ways they can help make the system better for everyone, and then find a way to work towards that in their own community.”

For example, one way teens might be able to take part in change is to get them involved in the voting process. “Voting is a meaningful way that teens can get involved, and it’s one way that everyone can have a voice for change in our country and feel like they are part of the official democratic process,” says Dr. Simon. “Younger teens can call family members to make sure they are registered to vote and have their proper IDs. If your teen is 18 or older, talk with them about the importance of voting and making sure their voice is heard. They may also want to call friends and other kids their age to make sure they are registered to vote.”

Allow them to participate in peaceful protests

Peaceful protests are another way teens can be agents of change. For those who want to attend protests, Dr. Simon says it’s important for kids and parents to vet the organization that is conducting the protest. “There are organizations that genuinely want to have the most peaceful protest possible, such as the protest that happened recently here in Boston in Franklin Park, with zero arrests and zero looting.”

In addition to vetting the organization, Dr. Simon suggests finding out exactly what time the protest begins and ends and to wear masks and follow appropriate social distancing guidelines. You should also make sure you and your teen have a plan if they see any concerning or violent behavior.

“For example, have a conversation about the protest and tell your teen, ‘If it seems like things are getting rowdy, or you don’t feel safe, call me and it may be time to come home,’” says Dr. Simon. 

For parents who might be afraid to let their kids be involved with protests, Dr. Simon says to remember that whenever you have a large gathering, there are always a small subset of people who participate in behavior that is not ideal. “Even in celebratory moments, like when the Celtics or Patriots win a championship, you have people breaking windshields and throwing things,” he says. “And just as in those scenarios, it’s only a small percentage of people who are engaging in those types of behavior during peaceful protests.

He says parents should try to focus on the positive reasons behind the protest — promoting justice and fighting racism and structural inequality — and not allow the actions of a small group of people to totally dissuade you from letting your teen participate if they want to, or even going with them.

Take time as a family

Finally, with everything that’s going on in the world right now, many kids are feeling a lot of stress. “That stress can be compounded by the repeated exposure to current events on the news and social media. So it’s really helpful to have designated family time where you are off all social media and are truly present together as a family.”

Even though your teen may balk at the idea, Dr. Simon says it’s crucial to take a step away from social media for an hour a day and find time to engage with your teen about what’s going on. “It’s also a way to model an appropriate sense of engagement with the world — to take space away from social media and everything that’s happening in the world for a few moments and just relax.”

Read more on racism from Boston Children’s.

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