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Proud and Fearful: Raising a Teenager in a Time of Civil Unrest

As I sit here writing, I hear the hammering sound of helicopters and continuous wailing of sirens in the distance. “Trump wants to declare Martial Law!” my teenage daughter yells from her room, which nowadays, with Covid-19, she only emerges from to take in provisions. We are in New York City and just an hour earlier my phone sent one of those overly aggressive warning messages announcing a nightly curfew for the rest of the week starting at 8pm.

It had been an unnerving day already. My ex-husband, the father of my children, sent me video after video of protest violence triggered by the horrific killing of George Floyd. People looting in a shopping area nearby, cars burning elsewhere in the city the night before, and similar disturbing images. He was sending the videos to prove his point: He didn’t want our 18-year-old daughter out on the streets demonstrating. This is not the way to protest about what is wrong with the system, he argued. Having grown up as a first-generation Dominican kid in one of the toughest neighborhoods of the Bronx, his conservative sentiment is one I never quite understood. It wasn’t the reason for the end of our marriage many years ago, but I had to avoid talking politics to keep the peace under our roof.

He wasn’t the only one worried about our daughter’s safety.

But I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that my teenage kid, who for so long had unplugged from the world’s suffering (perhaps because she herself suffered from depression and anxiety), finally cared about getting involved.

I didn’t want her on the streets, but I also didn’t want to discourage her desire to step up and do something. She is 18 and, technically, doesn’t have to listen to her parents anymore. But she respects our wishes and now participates in the Black Lives Matter movement from the confinement of our home. Every day she posts links to news stories, petitions to sign, and ways to help change the system.

It feels strange to have to restrict my daughter from participating physically, since I was once a busy activist. In my youth, I was organizing, writing articles, joining protests or vigils, sitting at political discussion round tables, continuously fighting the neo-Nazis in my country. But my social justice participation took place in Austria. Nobody is armed with guns there. Nothing ever escalates as badly as it does here. This is a different place to be raising children.

I love what this country stands for. But, along with the turbulence and chaos that accompanies structural changes comes a fear for my children whenever they leave the house. The irony that this is how the mother of a black son probably feels all the time isn’t lost on me.

Maybe it’s a good thing that I worry about the safety of my children out in this unstable world. Perhaps this fear will make me a more active participant in the movement for systemic change we so desperately need.

Every day, my daughter cries about the things she reads or sees regarding the current situation.

Over the past couple of years, I have unsuccessfully been urging her to watch something else besides Bob’s Burgers or re-runs of old Disney shows. I practically begged her to throw in a TED talk. Or maybe an occasional episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver—a fun way to process the sad and often infuriating news. But something changed. I dare say, it was the emotional pull of social media which drew her in. And now that she is fully plugged into the suffering of the world, I sometimes wish I had kept my mouth shut. Because—to be honest—I am not sure she can handle it. Watching the news ought to be done carefully, I remind her. What is seen cannot be unseen.

It is a challenge to support my teen as she becomes more invested in creating a better world. I want my kids to be involved and step up, but it is my maternal instinct to protect them. I want them to be informed and to care. But I also know they need time to disconnect and recharge in order to maintain their inner peace. It’s a balance I’m searching for myself, a solution I need to find so I can help my kids navigate a world that is more dangerous than any mother wants for their child.

S. Rihan is a writer and photographer living in New York City with her two daughters. Most of her writing she has done on a variety of personal blogs, the longest running one, 2005-2017, as “Bitching Mama.“ In 2018, she published her first book, a memoir titled “Good Grief – Bad Grief.“ On social media, you can find her on Twitter @BronxAustrian or on Instagram @wisdom_repeated.

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