As a social scientist, I feel strongly that if he’s going to talk about something, he should have accurate information to back it up. After some occurrences in the fall, I provided him access to reputable websites/news outlets that I read and have asked him to read about topics of interest so we can discuss. He will sometimes do this, but other times, he’ll keep on pushing the outrageous and won’t back down, even when facts are given.
Part of me wants to think he’s doing this purposely to tweak me (so it may be a stage), but the other part of me is wondering whether this is what his beliefs as an adult really will be. (I don’t want to see him become a conspiracy theorist.) It would be really hard for me to take the latter. I love my son, but I don’t know how best to handle this. Thanks for your thoughts!
A: I imagine that, for time eternal, teens have been prone to “tweak” their parents. Being a teen means testing the boundaries, and who better to test than Mom, the social scientist who has strong opinions? There is no more perfect sparring partner than an authority figure who also happens to be your parent. I, too, remember loving a good debate and the attention (good or bad) it got me. I would argue points I didn’t even believe in just to show off some intellect and to bully the other person. It’s a bit of a high, but then it becomes a lonely feeling. I was, like many teens, seeking connection, but instead, I was creating mayhem.
But there are other considerations here.
First, you say he’s a “great kid,” and I’m taking your word for it. I don’t know the metrics we’re using, but I’m assuming he is mostly kind, considerate, does well enough in school, respects others, helps around the house and cares about others and their perspectives. I would have more red flags raised if you had said he’s depressed, isolated and anxious, and here’s why: Young people are more prone to conspiracy theories and fringe (or violent) thinking when they are isolated from their connections and, hence, more vulnerable. I recently listened to an NPR interview between Audie Cornish and Travis View, host of the “QAnon Anonymous” podcast, and this exchange caught my attention:
“How much sympathy do you have for people who have gotten involved in this?” Cornish asks. “And the reason why I ask is because it’s probably not going to be unusual to hear people here and there say, ‘Oh, I was sucked in,’ and maybe not take personal responsibility for their actions during that time.”
“I actually have, I mean, a great deal of sympathy for people who fall into this, and the reason is because QAnon satisfies needs that we all have,” View says. “We all need to have a feeling of significance. We all need to have a feeling of community. And we all need to have some sense of optimism for the future. And if you’re not getting that in any other way, then QAnon can sort of fulfill that role for you. Now, I think in the end, it’s very, very toxic. But I realize why people who are very vulnerable fall into this.”
Teens are hungry for significance and community, and they will be part of a group even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. And I don’t know which ideas your son is taunting you with; for all I know, he could be arguing about tax breaks for the wealthy rather than about QAnon, an extremist ideology that the FBI has deemed a domestic terrorism threat. But if you feel as if he is falling into true conspiracy theories, the answer is to connect with him, not make him prove his points, debate him or eye-roll at him. Find a way to hang out with him in a way that brings joy, and don’t feel the need to “teach” him anything. Why? If he is falling into conspiracy theories, then disagreeing with him or treating him as if he is less intelligent will only solidify his desire to connect with others, and he will defend his new community.
Instead, highlight what is special about him, tell family stories from when he was little and, whenever possible, get him away from technology.
If you think he is, in fact, just trying to get your goat, I would stop arguing with him. Stop responding, period. I am not suggesting you stomp off or go into an icy silence; instead, ready yourself with noncommittal murmurs. Don’t take the bait. I am curious to see what happens if you stop sparring with your son. Maybe he will get bored with his antics and give up. Maybe he will concede to being difficult. Maybe he will withdraw from the family (a red flag). In any case, you must drop your end of this power struggle rope to find out what the dynamics really are.
Finally, when I read that you don’t want him to become a conspiracy theorist, and that it would be hard for you “to take,” I made a face. What does this mean? If he believes in conspiracy theories, it would offend your sensibilities? It would let you down? Maybe you are being flip here, but your son is not a product of you for you to “take” or not. He is his own soon-to-be man, and he deserves your respect, even if you don’t agree with him. Please check in with your biases and “either/or” thinking, and how it may be making your son feel.
It is a deep and intrinsic need for children to be unconditionally loved by their parents, so don’t make conditions. I know that this is easy for me to say, but it doesn’t make it untrue.
More resources that may help: this piece from The Washington Post on why people are susceptible to conspiracy theories, this article from Medium about how to not raise a conspiracy theorist and this story from Wired on why teens are falling for TikTok conspiracy theories.
You may want to take a look at a few books that I’ve found helpful and that I like the logic behind: “How to Raise an Adult” by Julie Lythcott-Haims, “Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence” by Laurence Steinberg and “Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe” by Jess Shatkin.
Find this over on The Washington Post.
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