social justice

Engaging Your Anxious Child in Social Justice

You know by now how fiercely gifted children feel about justice.

“He got 9 chocolate chips in his cookie and I only got eight!” “She didn’t have to go to her room when she did that!” “Why do I have to clean this up when I didn’t play with it?” “It’s not fair!”

With chronically inflexible children, as gifted kids often are, justice is a hill they’re all too willing to go to battle on. While giftedness is not always a gift and the intensity is often a heavy burden to bear, gifted kids come with a passion that cannot be denied and that simply refuses to be silenced when they believe to be the victim of bias, inequity, intolerance, or tyranny – basically they get really worked up when something is perceived as unfair. It’s only natural that these gifted kids would find themselves becoming passionate about social justice issues. 

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I often joke that I’m raising a tiny army of lawyers because my kids are so good at arguing their case and placing the burden of blame upon another party, ANY OTHER party. They have the passion, the vocabulary, and the stubbornness to form a coherent (and actually quite persuasive) argument on their own behalf.

Yet we still have to avoid most news stories, still have to prescreen books and movies, still have to guard their anxious and sensitive hearts against so much of what is happening in the world around them. These little litigators who are so ready to take their case before a judge are reduced to anxiety attacks and tears when faced with the injustice that is forced upon others.

Stories of animal cruelty, racial and religious bigotry, destitute families, brutish parents and caretakers, victims of disasters both natural and manmade, exploitation, pollution, division…. there is a lot for a young, intense worrier to worry about. These kids of ours who feel so intensely for themselves also experience intense empathy, even anxiety, for all the bad things happening to people around them. They can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tragedy and simply freeze up in fear and grief and the realization that they cannot stop or change it all.

It’s hard to witness as the parent of an anxious empath. We want to shield them from these waves of emotion that threaten to topple them. We want to keep our children happy, want to keep them from the inevitable disappointment of discovering that they cannot shoulder the world OR buy it a Coke. If they knew all that was wrong with the world they’d melt into a puddle of tears at the sheer volume of it all.

So let’s teach them to change it. 

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Aside from the belief that we are doomed to repeat the history we do not learn, it is imperative that we introduce the concept of social justice to our passionate, intense, feeling children. Who better than they to latch onto a project, a person, a cause, a need, and stand firm until an acceptable change has taken place? If our children are going to venture outside their bubbles someday and be faced with the harsh realities of inequality and corruption, let’s equip them to elicit change. Let’s ready them to find solutions so that they aren’t paralyzed by the enormity of the problems. Let’s train our little lawyers to defend as aggressively as they prosecute, to turn their passion outward and come alongside those who stand alone. Let’s convince our children they can make a change now so that they aren’t reduced to worry when it all seems bigger than they are.

Caring about social justice empowers the anxious child rather than harms him because it offers a tool to help combat the overwhelming feelings of futility. When they know that something can be done it isn’t so scary anymore. When they know it’s okay to care and have an outlet for their feelings they aren’t so overpowered by them anymore. Engaging your child in social justice gives them a channel to direct their intense feelings, to perform emotional alchemy and turn anxiety and grief into determination and change.

Ask your child to tell you about a time they witnessed something that was unfair or felt like justice hadn’t been served. How did they feel? How do they think the victim felt? What did they do? What do they wish they could have done? You may need to help them out, offer up a few possible outcomes or solutions, actions that could have been taken or words that could have been spoken. This isn’t a lesson in regret, you’re simply beginning to show your child that there are options, that there are several different ways we can react to situations. You are introducing them to the concept of social justice, the idea that if something isn’t fair there is something that can be done about it.

Gifted kids, especially those who struggle with anxiety, can freeze when presented with options. They’re able to run through multiple scenarios in their minds and always worry that by picking one they’re saying “no” to another good choice. Help them hone in on what’s important, what would really bring peace to a situation. Sure, there are a lot of different ways you can stand up for your friend who was just passed over for a team because she speaks with a different accent, but what do you want the end result to look like? We can run through a hundred reactions to the man we just saw toss trash into the lake, but what do we want to accomplish? Help her to focus on the end goal to eliminate some of the more extreme possible courses of action, but also to constantly remind her that there is an end, there can be change, and that it takes focused work to get there.

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As you listen to your child, take notes about what he’s passionate about. Whenever a news story particularly moves him or a situation he witnesses enrages him, make note. Listen to what he says and what he wants to change. As you both begin to refine what’s important to him, begin asking him casually what he’d like to see done about what upsets him. Start researching and looking for organizations that do work that aligns with his passions. Check out your library for books on social justice for kids. Read him stories about others who have fought for justice and won. Inspire him with biographies, documentaries, news stories, and as many real-life experiences like rallies and visits to nonprofit headquarters as you can. The buzz in the air of a room full of people intent on change is contagious, so be prepared. Show him what happens when people decide something isn’t fair and they want to do something about it.

Your child will need you to provide some railing to keep them in their lane, or at least still on the road as they take many different turns. An excited gifted child can quickly become an obsessed child, who can then become an overwhelmed child. Point out how many great activists saw change affected because of their work. Was Dr. King less effective because he didn’t march for the endangered turtles? Is Temple Grandin’s work subpar because she doesn’t also speak up for veteran’s issues? Of course not! Remind your child that they can care about many things while not doing all the things. Help to keep them grounded – frustration at not being able to do everything is a lot better than the fear of feeling like you have to.

Introducing your intense, anxious child to social justice can seem counter-intuitive. It may feel like inserting your child with so much passion and emotional intensity into a world of so much injustice is a recipe for meltdowns and fatigue. It probably seems like a kid who feels so deeply should be spared the realities that could affect them so profoundly. But really, when our kids are so smart, so intense, so passionate, and so emotional, how can we not?

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