Highlights
  • Domestic terrorists and mass shooters in the US are often young men who have been radicalized into holding extremist beliefs that lead to violent acts.
  • Parents and caregivers of adolescent boys need to understand the risk factors that make the young male population especially vulnerable to extremist influence.
  • Parents should engage in open-ended conversations and educate their children rather than mock or punish them for their ideas, which can drive more toxic thinking.
  • Social-emotional learning principles can help children build resilience, self-awareness, empathy, and critical thinking skills that can serve as protective factors against extremism.

It should give all parents and caregivers pause to know that domestic terrorism incidents in the US have been increasing since 2014. More Americans than ever — predominantly men and boys — are being radicalized. This means that they’re being persuaded to hold extremist beliefs and/or behave in violent, extremist ways. And this matters to parents because boys are often recruited when they’re at their most psychologically vulnerable, when significant adults in their lives can potentially help them make a course correction.

According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, roughly half of all domestic terrorism events in 2021 were perpetrated by violent, far-right perpetrators, many of whom subscribe to white supremacist or anti-government beliefs. And these domestic terrorism statistics don’t include most mass shootings, where 98% of the shooters are men. And young men at that. Most school shootings are perpetrated by men in their late teens and early 20s. The radicalization process often usually begins years earlier.

So the stakes are extraordinarily high when it comes to intervening between boys and potential pathways to violence and extremism. These outcomes concern everyone, not just individuals and families. But parents and caregivers are usually on the front lines of prevention. This article will look at some of the reasons why adolescent and teen boys are so vulnerable to radicalization, and offer strategies that parents can use to keep their sons safe and help them build up reserves of mental health and resilience.

Why Adolescent Boys Are Vulnerable to Extremism

Many complex factors can contribute to the radicalization of young people. (Girls can be radicalized as well, but we’ll focus on boys here since they still greatly outnumber female violent extremists). The drivers can be related to mental health, cognitive development, micro environments, society at-large, and much more. And it’s important to note that even if an adolescent (age 10-19) faces all of these risks, it doesn’t mean they’ll grow up to be a white supremacist or a mass shooter or the Unabomber. It just means that the adults who care about these boys have a responsibility to pay attention. Don’t assume that your son is immune to extremism. It’s not always the core ideological messaging that appeals to them, but the inclusion in something bigger than themselves.   

Experts on youth radicalization have identified a few reasons why adolescent and teen boys are especially vulnerable to extremist influences:

Developmental factors 

In adolescence, children often begin searching for their own social identity. They might seek more independence from their parents and begin prioritizing what their peers think of them. They might look for ways to gain or solidify their status within a social group. They might become confused about gender roles or sexuality. It’s also an age of idealism. An average ninth-grade boy wants to be important, wants to make a difference in the world. He wants meaning and purpose — to be part of a heroic struggle. In addition, his brain’s limbic system and prefrontal cortex aren’t mature yet, which means his emotional regulation and executive functions aren’t operating at full capacity.  

How can these normal developmental shifts be distorted and manipulated by bad actors? Well, an extremist group can give an awkward adolescent a manufactured identity. “Feeling lost and uncertain about who you are? Here’s a built-in brotherhood that can define you from here on out. You belong here. You are valued and important.” Extremist groups can provide a shortcut to that difficult process of becoming and belonging.

Extremist ideology can also exploit an adolescent’s affinity for justice. But instead of prosocial justice, these beliefs might posit grievances that embitter someone against a scapegoat group. For example, “You’re suffering from all these wrongs. You’ve been deprived of A, B, and C. Your manhood has been damaged. It’s fundamentally unfair. And someone else is to blame.” Who is to blame? You name it. Immigrants, feminists, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, etc. The mind adopts an us versus them mentality. 

Psychological factors

Somewhat overlapping with the developmental factors above are the psychological drivers of extremism. Low self-esteem and self-hate can be turned outward, directed at some Other, so an adolescent can avoid those painful feelings. A sense of social deprivation and relative disadvantage can drive right-wing ideology. Macho power fantasies can embolden someone’s grievances. Aggression, impulsivity, and reckless or deviant behaviors can govern the immature adolescent brain instead of critical thinking. Loneliness, humiliation, and that classic drive for belonging can lead to social connection with unsavory characters. 

And finally, as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) points out, teens are especially vulnerable to mental health problems. They’re experiencing social, emotional, and physical transitions at a pace that can feel overwhelming. This is a time when they might begin showing signs of a mental health disorder like anxiety or depression. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that 70% of emotional disturbance diagnoses in ages 3-21 are for boys.

Environmental factors

Adverse life events can contribute to someone’s radicalization. An adolescent might experience a personal crisis or disruption. A triggering event could be bullying, abuse, family dysfunction, or abandonment. Someone close to them might have died. Geopolitics and scary phenomena like climate change can also be destabilizing. When an adolescent is feeling lost or confused, extremist beliefs might offer certainty and security. Radical ideology might erase life’s shades of gray and offer a seductive, black and white view of the world.

Online factors

In the modern world, the adolescent mind is cyber-enabled. As kids seek social connectedness and belonging, they communicate with their peers through social media, video games, and other virtual platforms. Unfortunately the Internet is rife with algorithms that favor extremist content. Hateful content also tends to start mild, then escalate. For example, an alt-right extremist might share a vaguely racist or sexist meme, then share something xenophobic, then accuse anyone who takes offense of being a “snowflake” or not having a sense of humor. 

These progressions from dark “jokes” to online extremism can be incremental. Lindsay Schubiner, an expert on white-nationalist threats, told the Washington Post, “White-nationalist and alt-right groups use jokes and memes as a way to normalize bigotry while still maintaining plausible deniability, and it works very well as a recruitment strategy for young people.”     

Anti-extremist Playbook for Parents

You know all that social-emotional learning (SEL) stuff they teach in school these days? Well, it turns out that kind of training is critically important to preventing young boys from being radicalized. And you can do it at home, too. To help your sons become mature adults, they need to learn some fundamentals like emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and critical thinking. This isn’t a one-and-done crash course that takes place over the dinner table one night. These are ongoing conversations.

In a helpful guide for parents and caregivers published by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), experts on youth radicalization recommend that adults “engage and empower” vulnerable kids to keep them (and others!) safe from extremism. What does this mean in practice?

Engagement

Adolescents are naturally rebellious. They might also feel persecuted or victimized already — it’s just a symptom of their developmental age. So if parents approach their sons from an antagonistic or punitive angle, they’re probably going to push their kids further away. Instead of telling children they’re sexist idiots for sharing a chauvinistic meme and seizing their devices, try to stay calm and ask them why they think the meme is funny. And then listen to what they say. Ask them questions about their beliefs with an attitude of curiosity, not combat. If you shame them, you risk feeding their narrative about a world that oppresses them and treats them badly. The SPLC gives the following open-ended questions as examples of how to engage your child:

  • “What values do you stand for?” 
  • “What kind of person do you want to be?” 
  • “How do you think your teachers could do better in the way they speak about racism?”

Consider chatting with your child in a casual environment that reduces the pressure. For example, if you have a conversation while driving in the car, your son doesn’t have to make eye contact with you, and he may feel more comfortable opening up. And speaking of that, you may need to lean into your own discomfort, confront your own biases, and be willing to discuss weighty topics like race, discrimination, sexual assault, gun violence and gun safety, homophobia, media literacy, and much more. If your kid is pondering this stuff, you probably need to as well. So strap in.

Empowerment

There are countless ways to empower adolescents and teens to feel good and act better. If you see early signs of radicalization, you can start by telling your child that you’re proud of them for exploring big ideas and being willing to question how the world works. Then you can help them think more critically about the material to which they’re being exposed. For example, do they know what propaganda is? Do they know that extremists target their age group for a reason? Relate to your children by sharing a time in your own life when you were manipulated. And remind them of their strengths. Your child’s social identity might be changing, but you can still point out positive things you’ve noticed about their personality, or times when they’ve shown resilience. Counter some of the toxic messaging in their lives with your own fortifying observations. 

You can also help your child build their emotional intelligence and mental health awareness by giving them the vocabulary for their feelings. You can educate them about darker chapters in US history, or direct them to trusted reading material or movies that you can then discuss. Help them build a sense of belonging and identity that isn’t based on poison or misinformation. Let your children have more control over certain things, so they can build confidence in themselves. Find opportunities for cross-cultural experiences you can have together. And try to model prosocial behaviors that showcase the immense power of empathy, acceptance, and kindness. In reality these are fierce, not weak or emasculating, human attributes.

By the way, the guidance above doesn’t simply apply to preventing kids from being radicalized. These principles can also encourage every youth to become a healthier adult. Social maladjustment is a major risk in adolescence. Although your parental role may begin to change when your child reaches double digits, you can still help foster their emotional well-being and connectedness