How to talk to your kids about terrorism

The World
A girl leaves flowers for the victims of an attack on concert goers at Manchester Arena.

A girl leaves flowers for the victims of an attack on concertgoers at Manchester Arena.

Peter Nicols/Reuters

As a parent, I can’t begin to imagine the fear, sorrow and nerve-racking anguish families felt during the Manchester attack. It is gut-wrenching to know that parents of children in civil-war-torn Syria face similar horrors, as do the families of ISIS victims in many Muslim-majority nations. No matter where, violence is unconscionable, unjustifiable and makes no sense. For parents, the loss of a child has to be the hardest of trials.

Our natural instinct is to shield our children when we hear bad news. Depending on how close to home a negative incident is and how old our kids are, as parents, we get to decide whether to even broach a topic. Planting seeds of worry and concern, without weighing the pros and cons, does little good. Sometimes, however, shielding our children means talking to them about some very messy topics, to equip them to better handle the situation.

For parents of both persuasions, here are some considerations: 


Start by reminding kids that you have their back. It is a good idea to reaffirm to our children that their well-being is our number one priority. If a child has a smartphone, set up a tracking app, like Life 360, so children can see you know their whereabouts, no matter where they are. If you’re a person of faith, consider mentioning how God looks after his creation, night and day, and remind kids to call on him when fearful or when in trouble.

We live in a fairly safe world  

It is useful to remind our children that most of us, especially in America, do live in relative safety. Bombings make the news because they are don’t happen every day. We can ask our kids to be aware of their surroundings, but shouldn’t overdo it either, lest fear cow them down. We can’t teach them to be fearful, or, we let fear win.

Us vs. them

When my kids were little and asked why Muslim terrorists had to spoil it for the rest of us who practiced Islam, my answer was that all groups have their share of fringe elements who don’t represent the rest. The KKK doesn’t represent all Christians, just as ISIS and their kind don’t represent Muslims or the teachings of our faith, I explained. These attacks are a political statement and those doing it are erroneously choosing violence to make a point. I hope this is how any adult would explain terrorism to their child.

Prepare your child

Forewarned is forearmed. These are sensitive times, and it’s best for kids to know what action to take, should it be necessary. Kids, being kids, throw around some pretty unfortunate words. If your child is at risk for being called names, such as a terrorist, teach them to take it to an adult, rather than respond themselves. Let them know such harassment may never happen — after all, we don’t want to set them up for anxiety, but it is important that they know what to do in the worst case.

Just as important, teach children to recognize that sometimes name-calling is no more than some kid being a goof. Kids need to know when to let it go or respond with humor.

If you feel your child is even a little likely to initiate the name-calling, it’s time for a conversation about why it’s inappropriate.

Inform the school

If you feel your child may be bullied at school, or be called a terrorist, don’t wait for it to happen to call the school. Be proactive and share your concerns with school administrators to hear what they have in place to prevent bullying or name-calling, before there is an incident.

Build bridges

As a family, we’ve taken to building bridges with much zeal, helping organize solidarity events, speaking at interfaith talks and being very public practitioners of our faith, Islam. The more people associate my family with Islam, the less they see ISIS as representatives. In the Chicago area, interfaith events have skyrocketed. Attendance varies, on average, from 400 to over 1,000 attendees, even on weeknights. Attending one of these events, as a family, promises to be a horizon-widening, bonding experience.

Get to know 'the other'

Ever since they were little, I taught my kids to make conversation, whether with friends’ parents or their grandparents’ friends or with strangers we crossed paths with. The idea was to foster curiosity and interest in what was unfamiliar. Fear is often rooted in ignorance. We can help demystify "the other" by intentionally choosing diverse literature, including picture books and board books; hosting a foreign film night once a month; and traveling, starting with a trip to Little China and Little India if there is one in town! Yes, diversity enriches our lives, our experiences, including our dinner tables!

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