If a 15-year-old girl told a teacher she suffered years of trauma and abuse and wanted to be emancipated from her parents, the teacher would have to seriously consider calling the state child abuse hotline to investigate the claims.
But if a young teenager confessed this to 458,000 strangers on Twitter, what happens to her?
Claudia Conway, the daughter of Kellyanne Conway, longtime senior adviser to the president, has made headlines for her social media posts criticizing her parents and calling out her mother’s political activity. Recently, her fairly typical teenage rebellion crossed into public cries for help.
Less than a day after Claudia posted about anguish online, her mother said she would leave her job at the White House by the end of the month, and her father, an outspoken critic of the administration, also announced a hiatus from Twitter and his political work. We can only imagine how horrible it must be for a teenager to try to navigate the public psychodrama of the Conway household. Her father has denounced her mother’s employer as evil, while her mother defends him as a savior.
Imagine trying to sort that out at 15. That’s an age when children are developmentally questioning what parents say, testing boundaries and building their own identities. The Conways are hardly alone in their political divisions. Relationships across the country have been strained or torn apart since the last presidential election. In the wake of our country’s polarization, couples have divorced, family members have been disowned and old friends defriended. People are experiencing real pain from the fallout.
The two months leading up to the next election are going to be particularly bad. Perhaps Claudia sensed that. She wrote that she was devastated that her mother was going to speak at the Republican National Convention and that her mother’s job had ruined her life.
Teenage emotions are intense and overwhelming. It’s painful to see a child unravel on social media. Her posts again raise the question of what our collective responsibility is when we witness such pleas. Her generation defaults to sharing vulnerability online. But when a child alleges abuse in such a public forum, how should responsible adults react?
Some people, especially those who agreed with Claudia’s political criticisms, tried to offer supportive messages. There are adolescents who may feel temporarily validated by a flood of encouragement from thousands of strangers on the internet. But that momentary relief is not going to solve underlying dysfunction or mental health issues within a family.
For me, Claudia’s most heartbreaking post was after she wrote about wanting emancipation and shared how she has suffered because of her mother’s job.
The next day she asked: “Why am I trending on Twitter right now?”
Her question revealed the innocence and naivete that even extremely online children have. Given her family’s proximity to power, their interpersonal conflict has been the subject of public fascination for years, especially in an age when personal drama is packaged and sold as spectacle.
Perhaps that commodification emboldened online zealots like Carmine Sabia, a self-described “conservative Christian” who tweeted to his 68,000 followers in response to Claudia’s posts. “Claudia Conway is an attention whore and she and her dad should be ashamed of what they have done to their family because of their selfishness,” he wrote.
A grown man publicly calling a 15-year-old girl a sexualized slur is vile. He’s projecting his own need for relevancy and attention onto a troubled child. And trying to score political points while doing it.
This kind of vicious reaction by the extreme right ought to serve as a wake-up call to Kellyanne: The movement she’s helped build is more than ready to eat its own children -- hers included.