My Child Is Sharing Conspiracy Theories and Racist Memes. What Do I Say?
Part Five: Supporting Anti-democratic Groups and Spreading Conspiracies or Overt Hate
By: Western States Center Staff
This post is the fifth in the six-part series “My Child Is Repeating Conspiracy Theories. What Do I Say?” authored by Shelly Tochluk, Christine Saxman, and Joanna Schroeder. Read the first post and access links to the entire series here.
When a young person begins actively supporting conspiracy theories (online and in person) or vocally identifies with an organized hate group, parents and caregivers face a more urgent problem.
In these instances, a child or teen not only feels some affinity for a racist and anti-democratic ideology, group, or conspiracy theory, but they have developed the confidence to reveal their stance and their allegiance publicly. This increased visibility seeks to grab attention, unsettle others, and — potentially — recruit more people to their way of thinking.
- A young person refuses to wear a mask, arguing that COVID is a hoax in school, at home, and online.
- Parents notice their son dressing like and championing the Proud Boys.
- A principal alerts a family member that the child they care for is displaying white nationalist symbols and slogans on their locker at school.
- A young person claims that the recent presidential election was stolen, and that “deep state” actors are to blame.
- At a neighborhood gathering, a teen loudly alleges that immigrants are responsible for increases in sexual assaults against women.
- Teachers notice a student citing extremist websites in her schoolwork and sharing white nationalist reading material with peers.
- A teen complains that his First Amendment rights are being violated because he was reported for disparaging women on social media.
- A group of students advocates for a “white pride group” at their school.
Look out for:
- Overt antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia, or transphobia;
- Shifts in overall attitude or speech that demonstrates an attachment to bigoted ideology;
- Patterns of isolation or increased time with online engagement;
- Changes in friendship patterns or out-of-school activities.
If you are worried, immediately reach out to the school counselor, coaches, religious leaders, or other supportive adults in the young person’s life.
Access local, national, and other community organizations for assistance.
Engage with Care
Take it seriously if you hear talk about “red-pilling” people or jokes about “normies.”
- What does that term mean to you?
Provide a neutral reaction when they make objectionable statements.
- That is a very strong position. Tell me more about why that is important to you.
- What makes you feel the way you do about this?
Pose questions to demonstrate you respect their personhood.
- Can you tell me more about this?
- What would happen if everyone adopted this perspective? What is the end goal?
- Is that a result you would like to see happen?
Remain available as a caring, critical thought partner.
- I don’t think that’s true. What makes you so sure about this?
- What makes you trust (the person or source)?
Stay connected. Focus on building a stronger relationship rather than pushing them away.
- I care about you and want to make sure you’re okay.
- Do the ideas you’re talking about make you feel good?
- What parts of these ideas speak to you the most? What parts do you have questions about or disagree with?
- How is this supporting what you want in your own life?
- Read the article What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right for insight regarding how to stay connected.
If a child or teen shares concerns with you about an extremist group or other problematic presence in your community, work with them to brainstorm the best way to open a conversation with people in a position of authority.
- Who should know about this?
- What should we say to them?
- What do you think will help motivate them to take action?
Help gather evidence of the threat posed by this presence.
- What are you concerned about? Are you worried about the potential for violence?
- Who are people helping this situation? How can we help the helpers? Who else might we need to talk to?
- How are you feeling? What support do you need?
Reach out to local or national community organizations for additional resources and suggestions.
Organize community and school discussions of Western States Center’s Confronting White Nationalism in Schools toolkit and SPLC/PERIL’s Building Resilience and Confronting Risk in the COVID-19 Era.
What Not To Do
- Don’t demonize the political figures a child or teen looks up to. Focus on the message or policies, not the person or group. Attacking people a child or teen reveres will deepen their attachment.
- Don’t let bigoted ideology and conspiracy theories frame the discussion. Stay focused on your family or community values and the right of all community members to live in an environment free from hate and threats of harm. Anticipate that extremists will co-opt language about cultural identity to steer dialogue away from the hateful nature of their ideology, their vision of the future, and how they believe it will be achieved.