When my oldest child was around 9 years old, he began to be terrified by the thought of aliens. He was an avid reader and one of the books that he had read talked of aliens and he just could not get the thought out of his head. He would frequently come to his mom and me and tell us that he was genuinely afraid of aliens. We would try to comfort him by explaining to him that the things that he was reading were fictional and that there was no proof of alien life, but he was unable to shake his fear. And, over the next couple of years, we learned to not discuss aliens or have anything on tv or movies about aliens in our home because it would cause such a negative reaction in him. Eventually, after many long talks and winding rabbit holes, we were able to get him to a place where he could rationalize his thoughts of aliens and even see the unlikeliness of most of the ideas that had caused him so much fear.
Lately, I have have found myself addressing a multitude of conspiracy theories as it seems at least one of my teenagers comes home from school every day communicating an idea or concept or story that seems unlikely or fantastical. Of course, I know that they are getting these ideas from one of the following:
- Either they, one of their friends, or one of their friends’ family members have misinterpreted something that is being reported due to either a misleading headline or slanted coverage of some event.
- They have heard all or a portion of conversations between their friends and classmates where the topic of discussion is based on something one or more of the persons involved either read or heard somewhere.
- Their teachers have heard and believed information that is unlikely and have incorporated that information into their lecturess.
In a quick Google search, I found the following answers to why people believe conspiracy theories: The desire for understanding and certainty, the desire for control and security, and the desire to maintain a positive self-image. Notice that the three things that are most desired are three things that are severely harmed by the believe in fantastical conspiracy theories – certainly, security and self-image. These are also three areas where teenagers are particularly vulnerable.
A very important thing to note is that we live in a time where incredible things are more widely circulated than any time in history. Every news outlet is looking for something that will catch people’s attention and go viral. So, there have been plenty of times that I’ve heard or seen something incredible from my children that is absolutely true. I never want to break the bond of trust between my children and me – I want them to know that they can discuss anything with me and I will not discredit what they tell me offhandedly. So, here is what I do when I hear my teenager saying something that seems unlikely and might even be something that will damage their psyche if they continue to believe it.
- Trust your gut. If something seems unlikely or like it’s part of a conspiracy theory, it probably is not true. The secret is to not discredit what your child believes to be true while maintaining your internal disbelief while doing your research.
- Ask them where they heard the information. If the information is a result of misinterpreting a headline or news story, it is very simple to find the article and read what the author is actually saying.
- Go to the internet and fact check – there are several fact checking sites, like snopes.com and you can also google a subject with the word “hoax” to research the validity of information. Also, check several reputable news outlets and see if they have reported anything on the disputed information/story/picture/video.
- Most importantly, use this as an opportunity to have a real conversation with your teenager about why they were drawn to this information – what uncertainty, lack of control, insecurity, or self-image issue(s) are they struggling with that made this information so interesting to them that they decided to repeat it? This may be a good time to discuss real solutions to the real issues they are experiencing.
Also, there may be times that you are unable to resolve whether the information is true or now. If this happens, be very careful to make sure that your teenager knows you are staying open minded about the subject until you are able to learn more about it.
Finally, if you find that something that is obviously not true is being spread by a teacher, parent or group of students, consider communicating this to the school’s administration. They probably don’t even know this is going on, and in most cases they will want to know.