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Teaching Profession Opinion

Alt-Right as the New Rebel: Adolescence in the Trump Era

By Heather Ridge — October 19, 2017 3 min read
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Editor’s Note: Most teens go through a phase of pushing their boundaries and rebelling in some way. Heather Ridge, science teacher at Boulder Universal school in Boulder, Colorado, has noticed that for some students lately, this means adopting the views of the alt-right. Here are her thoughts and advice.

Today’s teens have the same need to push back against adult authority and social conformity as their parents’ generation. Rather than choosing tattoos and cigarettes, some are opting to do so in a way that horrifies their socially responsible families ... by adopting the nationalist views of the alt-right.

Erik Erikson, the developmental psychologist best known for his theory of human social development, defines adolescence as a period of ego-identity versus role-confusion. This is the time in our lives where we push back against the boundaries of social norms and familial rules to see where the lines are really drawn and where we fit into them. This push allows us to bounce ideas of identity off the mirror of society and family. The resistance that is likely to develop at this stage of growth gives us a self-concept and self-awareness necessary to enter into society with our own identities.

No parent would tell you this is a fun stage of child rearing. Most, however, can relate to their own terrible teens and recognize this behavior as a normal way to push back against parents. Belly-button piercings, sneaking smokes, and sneaking out might have been their own private rebellion back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Leaning toward liberal issues and supporting Democrats were another way of pushing back against parents who tended to be more socially conservative.

Underneath her cardigan, one of my colleagues wears tattoos and a liberal’s bleeding heart on her sleeve. At home, she’s raising her two teenage sons with another woman—two teenage sons that are now identifying with socially conservative political ideas. As an educator, she’s aware of the stages of child development yet still shocked by their turn toward the right. How can two boys raised in a loving, socially conscious home lean toward policies so against the self-interest of the family? Is this a new trend for young teenagers?

While adopting conservative ideas is a far cry from spouting alt-right propaganda, this trend can be seen in more disturbing examples with increasing frequency. Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s son posted a disturbingly anti-Semitic message on Facebook. Schools are reporting higher incidents of hate crimes, and in my own school district, we’ve had to deal with alt-right memes, messages, and sentiment.

How much of this sentiment is actually rooted in students’ belief systems, and how much of this is simply the need for teens to rebel? This is a question keeping parents and educators up at night, because they require very different responses.

If parents are sporting their own tattoos and piercings, then perhaps rebellion simply needed a new face. Like Family Ties’ Alex P. Keaton, a staunch conservative platform can be a pushback to the largely liberal leanings of leftist families. Sometimes a reaction is the ultimate goal.

Along with pushing back, however, adolescence is also an easy time to be drawn right in. Role models and peer groups have an unnerving influence on a teen’s risk-taking behavior. Youth who are struggling to find themselves become increasingly easy acolytes for extreme causes. Sometimes the clearly drawn lines of black and white offered by fundamentalists provide a system of structure and security for young minds suddenly seeing all the gray areas of life.

How, then, to react when you catch your kid with a Nazi flag or sharing racist memes?

Like all parenting, there is no rulebook for this. Experts say the key is keeping the conversation going and (here’s the hard part), listening more than you talk. While ideas and identity will start to take shape during the teenage years, these indicators will be elastic for many years to come as experience and perspective grow and develop. While it feels in the moment that you are hitting a brick wall in confrontations with your rebellious teen, you are more of a sounding board than you realize in this critical stage of development.

Connect with Heather Ridge and Heather Singmaster on Twitter.

Photo: Warner Bros. publicity still for for the film Rebel Without a Cause. (In the public domain).

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