How teens can protest safely and feel empowered, say experts


Young woman with a raised fist protesting in the street

Experts say there are many ways to make sure teens are mentally and physically ready to protest safely. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Teens are more connected than ever to news about activism, protests and social justice issues. But, as more and more young people show interest in taking a stand for causes like racial injustice or the need for climate change, parents may be left asking: is it safe for teens to attend protests?

Aidan ElDifrawi and his father, Ash, a clinical psychologist, are co-hosts of the Hold Me Back podcast, where together they discuss differences between Gen-Z, those born between 1997 and 2012, and their parents.

When it comes to protests, ElDifrawi, 16, urges peers to make sure they truly know what they stand for before asking their parents about attending protests, doing research at home and discussing the issues at hand with parents and friends to make sure the causes being supported at specific protests are ones that resonate with their values and beliefs.

Aidan ElDifrawi, who co-hosts the Hold Me Back podcast with his dad, Ash, says he tells peers to make sure they're sure a protest goes along with their belief system before they look into attending. (Photo: Aidan ElDifrawi)

Aidan ElDifrawi, who co-hosts the Hold Me Back podcast with his dad, Ash, says he tells peers to make sure a protest goes along with their belief system before they look into attending. (Photo: Aidan ElDifrawi)

“It’s tempting to go with the crowd, but teens need to be prepared to not follow the crowd,” says ElDifrawi. “[If you go to protests] go with friends and family and hold each other accountable. And, call each other out if you start to see bad behavior. People don’t mean to get violent, but it happens.”

Still, even with the best laid plans, it can be hard for parents to know the best way to support a child’s desire to be a part of bringing about change while still keeping them physically and mentally safe. Yahoo Life chatted with mental health and public safety experts, as well as parents, about what it’s like to attend protests with teens and how to keep teens safe at these kinds of events.

Trust your gut

Walter Hahn, a retired police officer from the Warren County Sheriff’s Department in Warren, N.J., says when it comes to physical safety, it all starts with intuition.

“My first reaction is to take in all the information and make an informed decision before bringing anyone under the age of 18 along [to a protest],” says Hahn. “If you feel like this peaceful protest might become dangerous, trust your gut and find other ways for your teens to get involved from home.”

Have a plan

Once a decision to participate has been reached, there’s a quick checklist of safety procedures Hahn suggests parents move through, including making a detailed plan for the event. 

Agree on a rendezvous point — a special meeting place everyone in the party is aware of — in the case that you are separated, ensure that digital devices are fully charged and be sure that water and snacks are plentiful. Once you arrive, carefully take in the situation around you, making yourself completely aware of your surroundings.

“Never put yourself in a position where you’re trapped,” Hahn says. “Make sure you and your family have a clear plan of how to leave the area if anything goes awry. Always put yourself in a location where you can see law enforcement — that way if you see something suspicious, or need help, they’re easily accessible.”

Do some prep work

Nicole Beurkens, a licensed psychologist from Caledonia, Mich., says the first step in psychologically preparing teens to attend what can be an emotional event should be a conversation at home. 

According to Beurkens, talking points should cover everything from what teens can expect to see at the event to what to expect from law enforcement and even counter-protesters.

“The more information they have, the better,” Beurkens says. “The more knowledge they have, the more well-prepared they will be and feel, which can ease anxiety on the day of the event.”

Dr. Nicole Beurkens says she and her family protested together in the wake of the 2020 death of George Floyd. (Photo: Nicole Buerkens)

Dr. Nicole Beurkens says she and her family protested together in the wake of the 2020 death of George Floyd. (Photo: Nicole Beurkens)

Set realistic expectations

This also is a great time to empower teens: helping them to understand that while things may not change overnight, their contribution is important to the overall larger cause.

“Help them to see it may feel like a small drop in a big ocean, but the way we get there is with those small drops,” Beurkens adds. “A quote by Margaret Mead that I reference quite a bit with my own kids, and kids in therapy, is ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’ This way of framing helps to set expectations, and reminds them that they are contributing to something bigger.”

Beurkens, a mom of four, says she’s taken her own daughter to protests.

“She is adopted and she is African-American, so Black Lives Matter has always been a really important core issue for our family,” says Beurkens, who explains that the 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer had a strong impact on her daughter.

“She was 13 then, and she really wanted to engage [by attending protests]. We felt that she was ready with our support, so we went to several local marches,” Beurkens shares. “We went to an event in Chicago and that was really important for us as a family, to support that broader issue, but also to support her in that way. It was very meaningful for her.”

Beurkens is not alone in sharing that protesting has been meaningful to their family.

Paul Irwin-Dudek with his daughter, Kensi, at one of her first protests.

Paul Irwin-Dudek with his daughter, Kensi, at one of her first protests.

Paul Irwin-Dudek, a father and veteran activist from New York, N.Y., says that growing up in a small Texas town, he didn’t feel comfortable being out or seen at LGBTQ events. It wasn’t until 2000, at age 24, that Irwin-Dudek attended his first protest: the Human Rights Campaign’s march in Washington, D.C..

Irwin-Dudek shares that for years after, he attended Pride events as a spectator, but it was after the birth of his daughter, Kensi, in 2009 that he and his husband began getting more involved, attending as participants. Since then, their family has marched side-by-side at dozens of events, supporting causes like the Marriage Equality Council and the Trevor Project, a non-profit organization that works to prevent suicide in LGBTQ youth.

Kensi’s time at peaceful protests has made an impact on their local community as well.

“Because of her exposure, Kensi is signing up for her first club in middle school — the gay-straight alliance,” Irwin-Dudek says of his 12-year-old daughter. “We couldn’t be prouder of her.”

“While in her grade there are only two students with same-sex parents, at Pride she’s with thousands of girls and boys that have a family unit just like hers,” says Irwin-Dudek of protesting with his daughter. “I go to show her that she’s not alone.”

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