Responding To Early Engagement
If you’re concerned your child may already have begun to engage with white nationalism, don’t ignore your concerns. But before you respond there are some important questions to think about, such as:
- Am I misinterpreting my child’s speech and conduct?
- Why would they become interested in white nationalism?
- Are there reasons why my child might be at risk of being recruited?
- What are some productive ways to approach a conversation?
It can be a good investment to prepare a bit before talking with your child. We have provided resources on this site to help you prepare. For example, the section on common signs of engagement will help you become familiar with some forms of speech and behavior that may often (but not always) reflect engagement. This may help you identify red flags you feel you’re seeing. The discussion of the attractions of white nationalism can help you see why your child might become engaged. And the overview of risk factors may help you focus on some underlying problems your child, like many teenagers, may be dealing with. Other portions of this site may also be helpful because much of the site was written to help prepare parents for conversations with children. This page focuses on some effective ways to approach a conversation.
If you see signs of engagement with white nationalism, don’t ignore them. But before speaking up, think through how to make a conversation as natural as possible, and what expectations you can reasonably have about the outcome.
Some Rules of Thumb
Don’t leap to conclusions
Using a term or symbol that is associated with white nationalism doesn’t always indicate engagement. For example, the common “OK” hand sign has been used by white nationalists to mean “White Power,” and seeing a young person use it might be concerning. But sometimes the OK sign just means OK. Terms and symbols can also be used ironically and in different ways. For example, young people may use the white nationalist phrase “red pill” (to awaken to the truth of white nationalism) to parody white nationalist language, not because they are adopting it themselves. Simply asking your child what a symbol or phrase means (even if you already know) can open up a useful conversation.
Respond with care
If you believe that a young person has become engaged in white nationalism, your first impulse may be to confront them and use strong arguments or emotion to intervene. These reactions can have the opposite effect of what you intend; they may actually reinforce the young person’s views and strengthen their resistance to reexamining them. For many young people who become engaged with white nationalism, its ideology is a secondary consideration. Instead they may be motivated by a desire to shape a clear identity, gain respect among a new group of friends, and feel a clear sense of purpose. Arguments against white nationalist ideas are unlikely to have impact if commitment to a white nationalist group or online community is fulfilling these more basic underlying needs. On the other hand, if you find that a deeper commitment has not yet formed and a young person is experimenting with white nationalist ideas, there may be a place for pointing out ways in which those ideas are false or dangerous.
Every young person is unique, as are their interactions with those who care about them. There is no one right way to respond. But there are some reliable simple guidelines. Look for a relaxed and private setting, without distractions, to discuss the issue and to communicate your love and caring rather than anger and blame. White nationalists hope that parents will be confrontational and create a rift with kids they are recruiting. No matter how your child may react, your tone can ensure that the discussion is never a confrontation, and that the line of communication stays open. Don’t help white nationalists drive a wedge between you and your child.
The thought that a child may be going down a dangerous path can create anxiety and make it easier for a conversation to become angry and divisive. White nationalists prime young recruits to expect conversations to be explosive opportunities for successful rebellion. Don’t help white nationalists drive a wedge between you and your child. If you stay calm, that can’t happen.
Of course, staying calm can be hard. It can help to remember that everything does not depend on one conversation. If things are not going the way you wish, as long as you avoid conflict you’ll have more opportunities. If you limit the goal for an initial conversation to being able to assess whether or how deeply your child has become engaged with white nationalism, it may be easier to avoid confrontation, to keep lines of communication open, and to plan more effective way to follow up.
Choose a relaxed setting
Whenever possible, avoid conflict by timing your discussion to take place during the course of everyday activities, such as driving to an after-school program or putting laundry away together. Listen and make it clear that what has been said has been heard. When you return to the topic later, there will be a greater likelihood that you’ll be perceived as addressing, rather than judging, the ideas a young person has expressed.
Don’t respond to “trolling”
Certain forms of white nationalism use hip and edgy humor in challenging ways. A teenager who has been exposed to white nationalism may use humor to make an offensive statement and test boundaries with a parent or other adult. They may assume coded language will let them get away with it. If not, they may fall back on deniability with formulas such as, “Don’t be a snowflake. I was only kidding.” Some kids may not even understand the “joke” they’re repeating; others may be intentionally baiting you into a confrontation, much like online “trolling.”
Don’t take the bait. Withholding the sought-after conflict is sometimes the best option. Clearly and calmly let them know that those ideas, even as supposed humor, are inconsistent with the values you expect.
- Avoid trying to “top” a snarky comment
- Recognize that argument often is counterproductive
- If possible, shift and talk about of positive values that you hope the young person will recall and share
- If constructive communication seems unlikely, disengage for the time-being.
It’s better to frame your conversation with questions and to focus on listening. Really hearing what your child says will help you understand why they are interested in white nationalism, and that will provide you with valuable tools to help them discover its errors and dangers. If you show real curiosity, it can affirm your respect for your child as a young adult. For example, by asking what online sources they rely on and asking them to point you towards them so you can hear what they have to say, you create the basis for a deeper conversation later.
Listen and make it clear that you have heard what your child has said. When you return to discuss the topic later, there will be a greater likelihood that you’ll be perceived as addressing, rather than judging, the ideas a young person has expressed.
Use authority with care
If you decide to discuss speech or behavior that concerns you, avoid using your authority to dictate what your child must believe or to punish them for their ideas. Many young people are at an age where rebellion against authority is part of identity formation. Invoking your authority as a parent or adult can be counterproductive. Young people use adults as mirrors: if you allow them to discuss their beliefs and thinking, it will help energize their own moral authority to reexamine their ideas, even if all you say is, “I’m glad you told me; let’s both think over these ideas more and talk again.”
Offer educated guidance
No one likes to be manipulated. Educating young people about the ways white nationalists use them may offer teenagers an attractive alternative of shaping their identities by rejecting that sort of manipulation. Seek out respected adult figures at school, in sports groups, or in other community roles, who have experience with this type of situation and can offer guidance or direct help in speaking to young persons at risk.
The guidance on this page has been shaped by the brochure, Building Resilience & Confronting Risk in The Covid-19 Era: A Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Radicalization, prepared jointly be the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). This short guide was edited with particular attention to the circumstances of the 2020-21 pandemic, but most of its points are applicable to all periods.
Sometimes the most helpful guidance comes in the form of personal accounts. A particularly valuable example, What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right, is a mother’s detailed narrative of her efforts to draw her teenage son from a quickly deepening engagement in an online white nationalist group. Writing anonymously to protect her son’s identity, this mother recounts the emotional stresses that led her son to white nationalism, shows the intensity of the social rewards membership provided him, and also models the sustained patience and understanding that enabled the parents to avoid a confrontation and gradually draw their son back, building on his own growing doubts.
“If [young people] begin to repeat themes or vocabulary associated with extremists and conspiracy theories, try not to ridicule or punish them. . . . Instead, suggest that the people spreading these messages may have their own motives besides the truth and a child’s well-being.”
- Building Resilience & Confronting Risk In The Covid-19 Era: A Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Radicalization
I liked them because they were adults and they thought I was an adult. . . . . They took me seriously. . . . All I wanted was for people to take me seriously. They treated me like a rational human being, and they never laughed at me. I saw the way you and Dad looked at each other and tried not to smile when I said something.
- Anonymous Author, quoting her son, What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right
Updated, October 2021