Campus Protests and Talking with your Young Adult Child

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Campus Protests and Talking with your Young Adult Child

It is important to create a healthy, safe space for meaningful dialogue between you and your young adult child, particularly when it comes to social or political unrest. This helps foster a healthier psychosocial environment. We need to establish trust without reflexively imposing our own political stances as parents.

Political unrest can lead to psychological pressures within institutions, families, and individuals. We need to recognize the effect that this can have on our kids before engaging them in heavy conversation. Mental health research drawn from young adult protests in Hong Kong in 2019-2020 (Kwan 2023) showed that the following four challenges can emerge in protest environments: mental health decline including increased anger, disappointment, frustration, insomnia, and PTSD symptoms; Tension within families due to different political ideologies; New divisions within peer groups; and decreasing trust in teachers and administration which can lead to lower support networks.

The current campus protests across the nation are really nothing new – We have seen peaceful sit-ins coming from the 1960s and civil rights era that used non-violent resistance and civil disobedience, stemming from Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prairie Fire movements in the 1970s encouraged revolutionary violence, and Anti-apartheid movements in the 1980s utilized divestment strategies. What is new is that students are combining various tactics with newer technology – social media, the internet, and faster media coverage –  that spreads and galvanizes their protest movements more quickly.

The acronym M-E-N-D can be used to guide how to approach and speak with your children about emotionally laden and politically charged topics such as campus protests:

Mindful

Mindfulness in the mental health field refers to being in the present moment, without judgment, and without being attached to any particular outcome. Be mindful of the developmental stage your young adult child is in. Understand that they have the ability to make decisions on their own, but they still need guidance and support.  Allow them to make mistakes in order to grow. Legally, your child may be an adult, but they are still maturing in many ways from adolescence into full adulthood. Young adults continue to undergo important cognitive, moral, and neurological developments of the brain. The brain is not fully developed or myelinated, especially the frontal lobe, until age 25-30 years old.

Cognitively, Piaget spoke of how they are now thinking more abstractly and hypothetically about moral, ethical, and political issues.  This would include campus protests. Morally, Kohlberg referred to young adults being mostly in the conventional morality stage, following the laws unless they feel they are unjust as opposed to fully appreciating conflicting values in society and life with justice prevailing.

Engage

Engage your adult child by creating a space of emotional safety. Don’t assume that you know where your kids are coming from. Ask what they are concerned about. What is bothering parents may not be the questions that children are asking themselves and others. Create a space for your child to have a voice by listening and through non-verbal cues. It is important to lead with curiosity and openness rather than judgmental and pointed questions. This invites more participation and the healthy sharing of feelings. It shows that you are interested in what they feel and have to say.

The alternative is disengagement and cutting off communication, which is detrimental. Examples of opener questions for your child may be:

“How is college going? Are you feeling ready for the summer?” or, “I’ve heard about the campus protests – what’s that been like for you? Can you tell me more about…” Engage them further by showing that you are listening effectively. This means showing good non-verbal body language – avoid rolling the eyes, turning your back, or adopting tense postures. Sit down to have your conversation and take a breath before you speak.

Negotiate

Negotiations between parents and young adults are an important part of building maturity.  We must balance individual autonomy with parental values and expectations. When explaining your point of view, try to be more like an empathic advocate than a parental dictator.  You should be negotiating from the perspective of an advocate for your child.  One might say, “I want you to find yourself and build your own voice while also understanding where the potential pitfalls can be.”

Describe, express, and assert your expectations without compromising your own values. Use phrases like, “Are you aware of the potential consequences this might have five years from now?”

At the same time, be respectful of your child’s feelings while embracing their growing independence. “I know it’s important for you to be with your friends, and let’s also prioritize how that fits in with other goals and expectations.”  Emphasize finding solutions to problems rather than focusing on who is to blame. “Let’s figure out how you can stay out late and still be safe.”

Walking the middle path instead of belaboring your same points will get you much further. Pick your battles. Know that you can win the argument, but still end up losing the trusting relationship that you have. Feelings matter.

De-Escalate

De-escalate any arguments and tension by using more “I” statements, validating your child’s experience, and avoiding toxic communication styles.

  1. You could say, “I worry about your safety when I don’t hear from you”, instead of “Why don’t you ever call us?”
  2. Validate their feelings and points. This does not mean you are agreeing, but rather that you understand where they are coming from. “I see that you are very frustrated by the turmoil on campus”, or,  “I know that social justice is a very important issue for you.

Effective communication should really avoid sarcasm, interruptions, and nagging. If you are making faces, or clearly not paying attention, it can lead to further escalation.

  1. Do not criticize, lecture, or make ultimatums to your child as this will shut down the conversation – Eg “If you involve yourself in any protests, we will not be coming to your graduation”
  2. If there are threats, ultimatums, shouting, or cursing, you should end the conversation and re-visit later on. Agree to disagree and quit while you’re ahead. High emotional reactivity and impulsive arguments will not help.

In summary, by cultivating an inclusive, non-judgmental culture of listening and validating your child, you can more effectively communicate with each other. Explain that it is ok to voice your opinion, but be safe. Young adults seek solidarity and a sense of belonging, particularly among their peers more than with their parents at this stage of life. Remember the human element and that college is a time of discovering one’s identity. Sometimes we try different hats on, later realizing that they do not fit perfectly.  Be aware of how young adults are still developing in many ways, and that they need our continued guidance and support as parents. Regarding the campus protests, make sure to share the importance of public safety, non-violence, and some of the inevitable psychosocial strain that come with the protests.

Parents can reflect back on their own college experience and remember how passionately held their beliefs might have been. Everyone has their own opinion, and we need to respect our kids as individuals. It is better to hear your kid out and validate their right to have different opinions… Sometimes parents and children need to agree to disagree, but still love each other, regardless.

If you want further reading on this topic, here are a few resources we recommend

  • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson et al
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt
  • Parenting the Strong Willed Child – The Clinically Proven Five-Week Program for Parents of Two to Six Year Olds by Rex Forehead PhD and Nichols Long PhD

by Stephen Tourjee, MD

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