7 Ways to Support Teen Activists

In the aftermath of a horrific mass shooting in Florida last week that claimed the lives of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, youth activists are rising to call for better gun control. While youth, especially gun violence survivors, have always been involved in activism, the level of organizing and coordination amongst survivors of this shooting is attracting attention — and unfortunately, not all of it is positive.

Instead of applauding youth who are using social media and their personal networks to swiftly organize multiple national actions, some adults are smearing them with claims that they’re “plants” who are being “coached” to speak out on this issue — all because they’re articulate, thoughtful and driven, well-prepared for media appearances, harassment on Twitter and other obstacles.

Anyone who knows a teenager should know these accusations are false: There are few things a band of determined young people can’t accomplish with several hours and a smartphone.

These young people have lived their entire lives in an era plagued by violence, between endless military action in the Middle East, a tide of police shootings — sparking youth activism of its own — and a steadily growing number of mass shootings targeting schools. They’ve also grown up on a steady diet of young adult literature — and decades of youth activism — that empowers teens and situates them as the leaders of their own revolutions.

It’s not surprising to see high school students taking this issue into their own hands, since adults have failed to act. To support the politically engaged youth in your life, I’ve rounded up the following tips.

1. Listen to Them

Teens are used to being dismissed by adults or hearing that what they have to say isn’t interesting. Flip the dynamic by taking a seat to actually listen to what these young adults have to say — and think before you ask questions. Are you genuinely curious, or just interested in cutting someone down? Can your questions support further growth and development?

2. Ask Them What They Need

Youth activists are organized. They know what they want, and they’ve done their homework. Instead of jumping in to tell young people what to do, try asking what they need. And if they’re not sure, then offer suggestions. Maybe that’s something as simple as a ride to city hall so they can file a permit request, or financial assistance so they can get as many people as possible to a protest.

3. Speak Up for Them When They Can’t Speak

If you’re in a room where teens aren’t and people are making dismissive, mean, rude or inaccurate comments, speak up. Your silence in these settings can turn into complicity, teaching people that it’s acceptable to make snarky remarks about young adults who are trying to address social issues. You don’t have to be aggressive: “Really? That’s not what I heard” is sometimes enough to defuse an inappropriate comment.

4. Share Your Experiences

Do you have a background in activism? Your experience may be helpful, with a caveat: Don’t force it on people. “This is how we did it in my day” isn’t always helpful or applicable, and it can make teens feel like you don’t value their work. “Let me know if you need logistics help with the march, we did something similar in the early 2000s” feels very different.

5. Follow Their Lead

Let youth activists set the pace and the tone. If you’re on social media, make sure to use the hashtags developed by youth, rather than diluting them with a new set. Rather than organizing your own march, see what youth in your area are organizing and determine where you’d be most welcome. For example, on March 24, the March for Our Lives includes everyone, but on April 20 — the anniversary of the Columbine shooting — students are organizing a nationwide school walkout.

6. Back Them Up

When people are rude to teens, give them a chance to stand up for themselves, but if they ask for help or look like they need it, back them up, centering their voices in the conversation. “Cindy, that seemed disrespectful. Did you listen to what she said?” “Mark, that kind of comment feels patronizing.”

7. Be Realistic About Risks

Activism can be risky, especially when it involves attending events in person, where people can become targets of law enforcement and counter-protestors. Don’t tell the young adults in your life that they can’t or shouldn’t protest, but do acknowledge risks, and ask how you can best support them. Maybe you’re the person they can call if they get arrested, for example, or you can loan them some foul weather gear to stay safe and comfortable at a rainy rally. Know that categorically forbidding attendance may backfire. Instead, ask yourself how you can make attendance as safe as possible for a young person you care about.

It’s worth remembering that youth are walking out of school, taking to the streets, lobbying lawmakers and engaging with the media because we, the adults, have failed on this one. Rather than undercutting their efforts, we should be welcoming fresh voices and new ideas that could bring us a step closer to a solution for the gun violence plaguing the United States.

Photo Credit: Barry Stock/Flickr


Anne F
Anne F3 months ago

Love the admonition to adults "acknowledge risks, and ask how you can best support them"

Marie W
Marie W8 months ago

Thank you for sharing

Paola S
Past Member about a year ago


Doree T
Doree Tylorabout a year ago

I have long said the youth are the hope of this nation and the free world. They are smart, and know what kind of world they want to shape for THEIR LIVES. We truly owe to our children to fight for their empowerment, in every way we can find to.

Jetana A
Jetana Aabout a year ago

I'm so glad to see activist youth! They are the hope of the future.

Winn A
Winn Adamsabout a year ago


Winn A
Winn Adamsabout a year ago


Leo C
Leo Custerabout a year ago

Thank you for posting!

Michael Canny
Michael Cannyabout a year ago

Support those companies, such as Dick's Sporting Goods, that have ended the sale of assault type rifles and gun sales to people under 21. Let the store personnel that you are making your purchases in support of their stand.

Kathy G
Kathy Gabout a year ago

Thank you