As always we asked our teen editorial advisors to review this article. This time we included some of their direct quotes.
The Price of Family Peace is Too High
Sixteen year old Macie wants to talk to her extended family in Wyoming about racism and the recent political upheaval. But she’s worried. Sometimes I want to speak out but I find myself the only one in the room with the differing opinion. It’s really difficult to know when it is worth it to have the conversation. I was with my family and they were all saying explicitly racist things and I didn’t know how to speak up. And am I asking my dad for permission to talk about these things with my family or do I need his support? And then what would that support look like?
No matter what the family’s politics are, for generations we have depended on the strategy of We don’t talk about money, religion or politics as a way to keep the family peace. When tensions escalate among people who love each other, or at least are supposed to get along, avoiding difficult conversations can feel like the only option to escape painful and possibly permanent inter-family rifts.
But the impact of that intention comes at a high price: silencing people with less power in the family hierarchy and not role modeling for the younger generation how to have contentious, challenging conversations while maintaining relationships.
Meanwhile, from COVID and quarantines to the survival of our democracy, young people are desperate to understand and process the events taking place around them and find adults they can rely on.
I think it is especially difficult given the reality of quarantine. So many family units have had to remain in extremely close proximity to one another during the course of an incredibly tumultuous political year. Work and school do not allow us to disengage from news and media nearly as much as they did pre-pandemic. People need a place to give their thoughts air, and it is imperative in our current circumstances to make households a safer and more acceptable place to do so. -Tre, 21
We get so caught up in “trying to keep the family peace” that it stifles our innate yearning to know more about what interests us. Personally, the stress and anxiety of a family dynamic uproot my critical thinking abilities and free thought because I don’t want to add any more stress to my life as a teenager. But, this strips me of my genuine desire to learn and be more in tune with myself—skills that I think everyone and myself included need to have for a richer life. – Madelyn, 16
It’s ironic and damaging that so many young people don’t feel comfortable or are forbidden from talking to adults in the two places that would be most natural for them to do so; with their families and teachers.
How do young people feel about not talking to adults to keep the family peace?
We asked young people we work with to share their feelings about talking politics with adults.
When I was younger, because conversations with my family were usually very charged, when I approached other people to have conversations – specifically adults- my arguments were either instinctively aggressive in order to be heard or nonexistent because I thought “Why bother?” – Gabi, 20
I crave meaningful conversations with the adults in my life, but too often they dismiss what I say and refuse to see things from my point of view. Even though I am not technically “equals” with the adults in my life, I should be considered as such when talking about important matters. In school, politics are almost taboo, so many teachers are afraid of being punished that any real conversation is impossible. – Micah, 18
In many conversations with adults, I find myself trying so hard to make my language as palatable as possible to ensure that I don’t face repercussions from a misunderstanding. It’s far more about prioritizing their comfort over my dignity because that is what I need to do to keep myself emotionally safe. – Sara, 18
How do we transform the silence, anger and misunderstanding?
We start with a few principles. These principles are beliefs that guide our decisions and actions.
Acknowledge the other person’s dignity. When we feel seen and acknowledged in a disagreement, we don’t feel under attack.
If I am wrong talking to an adult in a discussion, it is because my experiences had blinded me to the ones of others, which happens to everyone a lot. But in a safe discussion, I don’t feel the need to get defensive, because my dignity is not under attack, and neither is my experience. – Sara, 18
Listening is being prepared to be changed by what you hear. You don’t have to agree but you have to approach the conversation with that belief in your heart and mind.
Activating curiosity when we are listening to each other is the key to learning and strengthening our connection to each other
Committing to treat each other with dignity, recognizing each person’s inherent worth no matter their age or position, is a foundation for their interactions.
Believing that challenging conversations strengthen our understanding of each other’s perspective and life experience. We don’t have conversations to win arguments and dominate others. If that’s our goal we have already lost.
How do we have hard conversations with young people?
Take their information seriously. If a young person cites something they are reading, ask to read it. If they ask you to read or watch something, do it and then talk to them about it.
Challenge yourself to admit the assumptions you have about young people and ask yourself where those assumptions are coming from.
Don’t focus on proving they are wrong. Just as the case with you, a young person doesn’t have to have countless reasons to back up their argument or perspective.
Commit to asking curious questions. Young people are growing up in a different world than you did. Listening to them first before you give advice can transform your relationships. Hold yourself responsible for asking non-curious questions that come across as undermining their dignity. If you catch yourself asking one, take a pause, remember to get curious and reframe the question by saying, Tell me more… Help me understand why this is so important to you…
Be vulnerable. It’s actually the way to gain real authority with a young person; especially the ones you are closest to.
Recognize the power imbalance: Young people don’t talk to adults because of fear that adults will react badly and somehow punish the young person if their power is challenged.
Go easy on people, hard on ideas. Young people may be misinformed or wrong about things, that’s okay. Being harsh or argumentative to them will immediately shut down the chance of a positive, meaningful exchange.
If you can take these steps, you will transform your conversations with young people, you will role model civil dialogue, personal accountability, and what listening and learning truly looks like. That is what connects young people to families. When they see it in public, it connects them to their larger communities.
Families built on recognizing each other’s dignity builds a foundation for everyone’s emotional wellness. As Sara and Madelyn say,
Tell us why you disagree. We can handle it. But do it by asking us questions and being clear that you are looking forward to our conversation because you want to hear what we think and how we are observing the world. – Sara
Emotional wellness is so important for teens now because it is the one thing most of us lack with everything changing while we’re growing—a family dynamic at least striving for this goal would change the lives of so many young people, even the smallest effort and acknowledgments can turn around a how a teen might feel about themself. – Madelyn
We have arrived at this moment, no matter one’s politics, that we must have the courage to share what we feel, and accept how we got to where we are. We must work with young people to rebuild the civility and emotional wellbeing of our communities.