Will your teen activist grow up to be a liberal? Maybe

Cindy Dampier
Chicago Tribune

For 17 minutes on March 14, your teen was an activist.

In a large-scale demonstration, organized in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shootings, high-schoolers in Chicago, Detroit and other cities across the country spent a few minutes Wednesday standing up against gun violence. Or, at least, standing out in the chilly March air, enjoying the feeling of a few minutes of freedom from the classroom that many of us associate with the fire drills of our youth. Or perhaps both.

Teen activism is the talk of our hyperpolitically aware moment, and seems to follow a familiar plotline: Idealistic young people leaping forward to speak truth to their stodgy, conservative elders who, frankly, have made a mess of things while slowly calcifying into status-quo types afraid of change.

It doesn’t sound wrong, exactly. But it is, in some key ways that offer fresh insight into how teens form political views, and what role parents can expect to play in their choices and beliefs going forward. Here’s a breakdown:

Their brains are built for activism. Teen brains are still developing, and won’t be done with those processes until sometime in their 20s. That has a major impact on political thinking.

“In teen brains, there’s an overproduction of knowledge,” says Sheryl Feinstein, dean of the College of Education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and author of “Inside the Teenage Brain: Parenting a Work in Progress.” “They are able to learn a great deal of information really quickly. And they have an over-reliance on the amygdala. That’s our emotional brain.”

This helps explain why teens, with brains more sensitive to both pleasure and fear, may exhibit something called “adolescent hypocrisy.” “They talk about activism, but they don’t always follow through,” says Feinstein. “They may talk about healthy eating, for instance, while eating McDonald’s.” Thus, if you’re parenting a teen, you may find that their views suddenly shift as the reactive part of the brain kicks in. As they grow older, however, connections between the amygdala and the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for reasoning and impulse control, strengthen, and teens are able to think more clearly about issues.

“High school kids are able to do more abstract thinking than ever before in their lives,” says Dr. Gene Beresin, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and executive director of the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. “They can think about justice and altruism and fairness and rights and duties and responsibilities. They are really grappling with these things and in past years they couldn’t do that. They can look at complexities and nuances they never could before.”

Activism, Beresin notes, “is very good for them developmentally” because it allows the teen brain to flex that newfound intellectual muscle.

Their long-term views are being shaped right now. Conventional wisdom has long held that people become more conservative with age. But research shows that political leanings aren’t swayed as we age. Rather, they are set early on in life, as the brain matures in the teens and early 20s. Largely, they are influenced by parents, and by the political climate of the moment.

“These kids are at a point when they can have their views really shaped, and for the rest of their lives,” says Jeffrey Lyons, associate professor in the School of Public Service at Boise State University. “For most people, you are imprinted early, whether it’s by parents or the political climate around you. The early years really matter for that trajectory.”

Lyons notes, however, that “there are plenty of outliers” who don’t wind up matching their parents politically. The tendency to strongly identify with a political party is thought to be so deeply ingrained it has a genetic component — but those genes don’t determine which party you’ll identify with.

Generational politics, however, do show patterns of party affiliation. Some research has already begun to emerge on the group of young adults and teens known as iGen, whose political choices seem based on their experiences in a culture that values individualism. Individualistic iGen seems to skew neither Democrat nor Republican, but Libertarian — conservative when it comes to big government, but open-minded on social issues. The jury on where they land, of course, is still out.

“We see this activism,” says Lyons, “we see the protests and all of that and we know those kids who are active are probably likely to be more politically active as they age. What’s harder to say is what that means for the future political climate.”

Choosing opinions can be like choosing an outfit.

“Socially,” says Beresin, “they’re searching for identity. The most important part of adolescence is identity. And there’s a complicated dynamic between being oneself and being a part of a group.”

As teens separate from parents, says Feinstein, “It’s absolutely normal that they begin to look outside parents for knowledge. They are really trying on different identities, and they tend to test things out: Am I a strong conservative? Am I a liberal? That’s the part that can be hard on parents.”

In other words, just when you thought you were raising an open-minded, socially aware kid, you may find your teen spouting opinions that make you cringe.

“It can kind of break your heart a little bit if you see them exploring something you don’t agree with,” says Feinstein. “But it’s really important they’re the ones who get to examine all the options, get to look at the differences in philosophy and see how it fits with themselves.”

“Let them take it in,” says Beresin, “there’s no harm in talking. Talking is good, it’s healthy, and the more they can talk about things and the more opinions they hear, the better. The same is true for the Me Too movement, talking about sexuality, talking about aggression, talking about dating. The same is true for economic disparity, racial disparity.

“The more we have these discussions at school, in our homes, in our churches, our community, the better it’s going to be for them, the healthier it’s going to be.”