When it comes to discussing sensitive and controversial topics with your child, it sometimes feels easier to avoid the topics rather than tackle them openly and honestly. But it’s better that your child learns from you, school and real life – not the playground and dubious online sources.

Whether you watch TV, read the newspaper or use social media, it’s likely that you would have come across the terms, ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’. Both words incite multiple connotations and can sometimes be inaccurate and/or misleading. So it’s important to know and understand the official definitions of these terms before using them in conversations with children and young people.

This guide looks at what is meant by radicalisation and extremism; how to limit your child’s exposure to radicalising influences, and what to do if you suspect your child is being radicalised.

The government’s Prevent strategy defines radicalisation as ‘the process by which a person comes to support terrorism and forms of extremism leading to terrorism’.

Extremism refers to ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’.

What is commonly understood is that, extremism is the end result of the radicalisation process. The term ‘grooming’ is often used in the terrorism domain. But unlike in child sex abuse cases where the individuals being groomed are always children or young people, with radicalisation it’s important to understand that these people can often be adults.

Radicalisation can lead to terrorist-related activity – ranging from verbal abuse to physical violence and murder. We should aim to protect those at risk of being radicalised for the sake of their own and others’ safety and wellbeing.

In a research project carried out by University College London (UCL), three terrorist recruiters were asked about the kinds of people they would target and why.

  • ‘Kids with personal issues because it was easier to promise them paradise’.
  • ‘Broken people dealing with identity crises… abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, family poverty, those types of things’.
  • ‘Kids who were on the street, ‘cos we were looking to draw them into our family’.

These responses can be summarised in the following traits.

  • Low self-esteem.
  • Confusion or loss of identity.
  • A sense of isolation.

The aims of recruiters can change. Sometimes, the goal is to recruit as many people as possible – sometimes targeting the local community, online terrorist and gaming sites. At other times, they need people with specific skills or knowledge. For instance, an ISIS magazine once contained an article aimed specifically at recruiting medical students.

Terrorist propaganda seeks to create in-group and out-group identities -‘us’ and ‘them’. The in-group is glorified and praised, while the out-group is criticised and slandered. Readers, listeners and online viewers must decide whether they identify with the in-group or not. Propagandist material asserts that those who truly identify with the in-group will comply with the group’s violent agenda.

While each case if different, children and young people exposed to radicalising influences may demonstrate the following behaviours:

  • isolation
    • being secretive and reluctant to discuss their whereabouts
    • distancing themselves from old friends
    • becoming increasingly argumentative.
  • New identity
    • changing their friends, appearance and online identity
    • converting to a new religion.
  • Extremist leniency
    • using ‘us’/’them’ or dehumanising language towards specific groups
    • refusing to listen to different points of views
    • becoming abusive with others they consider different
    • being sympathetic to extremist ideologies and groups
    • accessing extremist online content.

If you suspect that your child is being radicalised or displaying extremist behaviours, do not hesitate to get help from:

  • your child’s teacher - the government’s Prevent strategy provides teachers with the skills and techniques to identify worrying behaviour and provide students with appropriate support
  • The Department for Education – call the counter-extremism helpline on 020 7340 7264
  • Social Services
  • your Local Authority Prevent Coordinator
  • the NSPCC
  • the police – Call 101 or complete the All Wales Prevent Partners Referral Form  

Protecting your child from radicalising influences may feel like an impossible task, but there are steps that you can take to reduce the risk of exposure.

Keep your child safe online.

The internet is the most commonly used recruitment tool for spreading extremist views and terrorist propaganda. Social media companies are trying to help prevent radicalisation and extremism spreading online by identifying and blocking extremist content. You can help by:

  • agreeing on the amount of time your child spends online and the sites they visit
  • talking to your child about who their friends are online and how they decide who to be friends with
  • installing parental controls on your child’s devices.

Educate your child on different ethnicities and religions.

Extremism is grounded on bias and discrimination. Counteract the spread of false and misleading information by ensuring that your child has a sound understanding and appreciation of beliefs, beside their own. Contact your child’s school to see what guidance they can offer.

(The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series) 

What extremism is, how extremist ideologies are constructed, and why extremism can escalate into violence.