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Talking to kids about terrorism

Much as the topic is difficult to discuss, parents need to make children aware of the threat

Recent world events have caught up with marketing manager Elaine Lim's family - she has had to address her children's concerns about terrorism.

When her 13-year-old daughter attended a concert last year, there were unfounded whispers in the girl's social circle about the show venue being unsafe. Her 11-year- old son says he is "scared of terrorists" and is glad that Singapore has not experienced the terror attacks he has seen on the news.

When her children are anxious about the topic, particularly in the wake of the latest attacks around the globe including the Brussels suicide bombings last week, Ms Lim, 45, tells them: "We have to be vigilant and, as Christians, we pray for protection.

"Terrorism is getting more prevalent. It can happen anywhere; we have to continue with our lives."

The family stuck with their plans to travel to Britain after the Paris attacks last November, with Ms Lim urging everyone to stay away from crowded areas, stick close together and be aware of exit points wherever they went.

Tell them it is all right to be upset because things can appear scary in our world. This can provide some immediate relief to the children.

MS ELVIRA TAN, a family life specialist at Focus on the Family Singapore, cautioning parents against telling their kids they have nothing to fear

She says: "Terrorism is very difficult to talk about. We don't want to generate too much fear, but we want the children to be aware of it."

Some parents refuse to talk about terrorism.

Mr Koh, 52, a university lecturer who declines to be named in full, says: "My son is not ready to face such realities. I do not expose him to them because I see no upside in letting him inherit adult worries and anxieties when he is only 6½ years old."

Other parents The Sunday Times interviewed deal with the topic in diverse ways. Some broach it pre- emptively, before their children are fully aware of the concept. Others closely monitor the videos their kids view online, filtering out violent images and suggestions of brutality.

Ms Elvira Tan, a family life specialist at Focus on the Family Singapore, cautions parents against telling their kids they have nothing to fear. "Instead, tell them it is all right to be upset because things can appear scary in our world. This can provide some immediate relief to the children," she says.

Even as they do this, parents should "manage their own emotions" as their anxieties can rub off on children, especially the younger ones. This can be manifested in nightmares or sudden phobias.

Ms Tan says: "Remind your child you'll always be there for him. This assures him that he won't have to deal with negative incidents alone.

"Children take great comfort in knowing that someone is in charge."

When terrorist attacks occur, parents can assure their children that the government, police, doctors, nurses and counsellors are doing their best to help the victims and keep society safe.

Age-appropriate talk and open communication is key. Younger children do not know enough about terrorism to fear it.

When the Paris attacks took place, Ms Valetia Tan says her six-year-old son Tristan had a "child-like, detached" curiosity about it. He asked where Paris was and whether she had been there.

Ms Tan, 39, a regional sales manager in the banking industry, and her husband are open to discussing weighty topics with their son. They tried to discuss terrorism with him, but he found it difficult to grasp why people do bad things to one another. "It's tough to explain it in kid's terms without bringing in the complexities of politics or even feelings," she says.

For kids who are too young to understand the topic, the conversation can be similar to parental instructions not to talk to strangers, says Dr Bilveer Singh, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore who researches security issues.

When it comes to older children, parents can ask leading questions that allow them to voice their thoughts and feelings about terrorism, says Ms Elvira Tan.

Dr Singh adds: "There is a need for parents to talk to their children about terrorism. If not, they may think there is something taboo about it and may eventually get influenced by other sources that may be detrimental."

Encouraging their children to turn to them means parents can correct them if they hear "bigoted ideas", says Dr Singh, who is also an adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

"Parents must not demonise a religious community and should talk about the importance of living in harmony in Singapore.

"There is no way to hide terrorism from children. They will get to know about it in the mainstream media and social media."

Given the many images of brutality or even beheadings that can be seen online, Mr Teddy Wong, 35, is so anxious not to expose his daughter Michelle, seven, to graphic images that he is wary of clicking on a chain of video links, which might originate from an innocuous children's cartoon.

Mr Wong, a resource management executive, or his wife, administrator Joyce Tang, 31, are by their daughter's side whenever she uses an iPad to watch cartoons or educational YouTube videos.

"We want to prevent her from getting any ideas that violence is the only way to go," says Mr Wong, who also disapproves of cartoons that depict violence, such as South Park.

Besides limiting young children's exposure to violence in the media, Dr Dora Chen, a senior lecturer at SIM University who specialises in early childhood education, says that parents should supervise their kids' TV time, "especially when news about terrorism is being aired".

"This way, you will be able to answer their questions as they arise," she says.

Branding and marketing consultant Nazhath Faheema, 30, says that while talking with her husband Adil Akbar Khan last year about the phrase "I am Ahmed", honouring the Muslim policeman killed in the attacks on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris last year, she realised that her daughter, Fatima Zahra, who is now six, was listening intently even though she did not understand the discussion.

That made her aware that children need parental guidance.

Ms Faheema, one of 20 Muslim Youth Ambassadors of Peace appointed by Muslim groups last year, is helping to plan a seminar to address parents' concerns when discussing terrorism with youth aged 11 to 18, who are more likely to be close to online content such as radicalisation videos.

For her own children, she ensures that Islamic values are "entrenched" in the family. "Islam is a religion of peace and we talk about peace," she says.

• Do you talk to your young children about terrorism? E-mail stlife@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'Talking to kids about terrorism'. Print Edition | Subscribe