Ask An Expert / Teenagers

My son is passionate about participating in the Black Lives Matter protests, but we live with my elderly father.

How do I walk the line between supporting my son’s activism and encouraging him to stay safe?

Kenya Hameed, PsyD

Clinical Neuropsychologist, Learning and Development Center

Child Mind Institute

My son is passionate about participating in the Black Lives Matter protests. It makes me so proud. The problem is that we live with my elderly father who is very vulnerable to coronavirus. How do I walk the line between supporting my son’s social activism and encouraging him to stay safe?

Developmentally, teenagers have this sense of invulnerability. If you talk to your son about catching the coronavirus and potentially spreading it to your elderly father, he may be listening to you, but he may think of it as something that will probably happen to someone else — teenagers often believe that the likelihood of bad things happening to them is very low. Therefore, just talking about the risks and potential consequences of him being infected may not be sufficient to address your concerns.

Most importantly, I would prioritize the health and safety of your family over participation in the protests. That might be very disappointing for your son, but his social activism doesn’t have to end at participating in protests. There is more than one way of being a part of this movement, and you can talk as a family about what that might look like. For example, he could help organize a protest or make signs for others to carry.

There are also ways he can work on changing policies that relate to the protests. For example, he could work on drafting a letter to representatives in your congressional district as well as politicians in local offices (e.g., mayor), to discuss concerns related to police brutality, use of excessive force and racial profiling. This letter could be shared with family, friends, neighbors, etc., which may encourage them all to send letters of their own. If he is in school, he can send emails or letters to the principal or the school board to push them to address systemic racial issues that may be prevalent in your community. If your son is of voting age, encourage him to educate himself on candidates at the local, state and federal level so that he is an informed voter. Additionally, donations to activist groups are also important, and you could discuss ways he might raise money or what sort of donations might be feasible for your family to support these organizations.

If after discussing all these options, you both decide that you want to move forward with your son’s participation in a protest, then you should focus on safety measures regarding his health and well-being while taking part in a protest. Examples include maintaining social distance from others, bringing water to stay hydrated and using hand sanitizer. It never hurts to remind him that the virus is invisible, and it does not discriminate regarding who it affects.

In addition to reducing your son’s risk of catching the coronavirus, you also want him to be safe protesting in general. Although many protests have been peaceful, there is always a chance that your child may end up at one that’s not peaceful. Things you may want to discuss include:  making sure he has his ID on him at all times, wearing closed-toe shoes and wearing a hat and sunglasses. That will protect him from the sun but it can also protect his identity. If he brings his phone, he should turn off face ID and fingerprint ID and use a passcode instead.

Finally, be sure your son knows his rights if he were to get arrested. For example, if he’s a minor, he should know that he does not have to answer any questions without a parent present. Since laws vary by state, it would be a good idea to review them together before he goes.