Radicalization is a process by which terrorists and other extremists groom people into sharing their extremist beliefs. Not every person who is radicalized becomes a terrorist – many remain passive sympathizers. However, being radicalized into a jihadi terrorist, white supremacist, or other extremist group radically increases a child’s (or an adult’s) chances of participating in terrorism. It can also interfere with their relationships with family and friends, with their schoolwork, and with their general well-being.
Fortunately, evidence suggests that intervention – especially intervention by family and friends – can effectively interrupt radicalization. You need to understand how radicalization works, how ordinary people are groomed into espousing extremist beliefs, and what signs to look out for to protect your children from radicalization. Here’s what you need to know.
Radicalization Is a Process
Experts believe that radicalization is a process with four stages. In the first, or pre-radical, stage, the person begins to identify with an extremist group and may even join such a group. In the second, or self-identifying, stage, the person begins to hold the beliefs shared by members of that group. In the third, or indoctrination, stage, the person is lured further down the path to radicalization, as they are groomed deeper into the group’s extremist beliefs. In the fourth, or terrorism, stage, the person actually commits terrorist acts.
It’s important to note that not all radicalized persons reach the final stage. Not every person will decide to act out violently. Many will continue to sympathize with the extremist group and hold those beliefs, but holding extremist beliefs is not a crime in and of itself. Nevertheless, learning to recognize the signs of radicalization and intervene is an important tool in domestic terrorism prevention.
Is Your Child at Risk?
How can you tell that your child might be at risk of radicalization? There are several factors that increase a child’s risk of becoming radicalized. Children at risk may:
- Not have many friends and feel isolated or lonely;
- Be the victim of bullying about their culture, gender, race, or religion;
- Have low self-esteem;
- Belong to a marginalized community or have exposure to a marginalized community;
- Have feelings of compassion and concern for the suffering of people who belong to their in-group or who they identify with;
- Feel depressed or struggle with stress;
- Want to get life experiences and have adventures;
- Be angry at the government or society;
- Feel unhappy with themselves and with others’ opinions of them;
- Have a friend or loved one who has already been radicalized; or
- Be looking for a purpose or a way to do something meaningful with their lives.
If you think your child is at risk of being radicalized, learn the signs of radicalization so you can intervene early.
Know the Signs
Children that are being radicalized may withdraw from family and friends, have a new circle of friends suddenly, and change their behavior. They may spend more time online and become secretive, especially about their online activities. They may be more angry than usual, and more disrespectful. They may begin to espouse extremist views, and may refuse to discuss their views if they sense disapproval. They may be accessing extremist material online, creating artwork or writing with extremist messaging, or using extremist messaging to spread hate speech or try to incite violence.
Families can play a strong role in counter-radicalization – so much so that many European countries involve parents and other family members when they engage with potential terrorists and attempt to de-radicalize them. When talking to your child about his or her extremist views, remain calm and cordial while explaining that you do not believe such beliefs are appropriate. You may not be able to talk your child out of radical beliefs – but maintaining a strong relationship with your child means that even if your child does run away to join ISIS or another terrorist cell, you can be there to help him or her escape the group later. Families and communities can provide crucial social support to people who are de-radicalizing, especially as a primary factor that drives many into radicalization is loneliness and a desire to belong.
Another factor that contributes mightily to radicalization is when someone in your child’s life – a friend or loved one – also espouses those beliefs. If someone in your child’s life holds extremist beliefs, you may want to limit your child’s contact with that person. Talk to your child about why you don’t believe in that person’s beliefs. Encourage friends and relatives who don’t hold extremist beliefs to reach out to your child and offer emotional support. It’s important to be patient and keep two-way communication happening during any talks you have with your child.
Extremist violence may seem to be everywhere these days, but you can protect your kids from radicalization. Keep your kids safe from extremist views, and encourage them to find real meaning in their lives.