Advice for parents in the wake of the #ChapelHillShooting

Shock, unsteadiness, heartbreak, fear, and frustration have seized many after the horrific, aggressive triple murder of three vibrant, talented, and engaged American-Muslims; Razan Abu-Salha (19), Yusor Abu-Salha (21), and Deah Barakat (23), students of the University of North Carolina РChapel Hill. Their death, which the media was so adamant at denying as a hate-crime, has effected the Muslim community across America, Europe, and beyond. It has no doubt left many demanding justice, expressing condolences to the family, feeling a desire to carry on their legacy, and desperate to seek ways to deal with this trauma. In particular, Muslim parents need ways to deal with the aftermath of the Chapel Hill murders and increased Islamophobia of the recent past. They are seeking support and advice to navigate this emotional and fearful terrain.

How should parents address these issues, especially for the very youngest of children? In fact, we can look to our Islamic traditions regarding child development to get a gauge on how to approach our children. From our hadith on the stages of child development, we see that it is broken down into 7 year cycles characterized by distinct qualities of consciousness and needs.  Therefore, our approach should be in sync with these differences as children are not mini-adults that all need to have a good conversation about their feelings and get the full report on traumatic events.

0-7 years

For the youngest children, 7 and under, it would be ideal to protect them from the information about the trauma and shooting, which means being calm and steadfast yourself, not having the TV news on in front of them, avoiding discussing the news in front of them with other older members of the family and maintaining the normal rhythms and routines of family life.  All of these actions and emotional messages from the adults create a sound, safe, and secure environment for the youngest children who, like sponges, soak in the mood around them.

7-14 years

Likewise, the next age group 7-14, also need a sense of security and safety, especially at times of tragedy and trauma.¬† They however, are ready to have more of a conversation that again must reflect their development and age. Allow them some time to ask you, as parents, about what is going on. You don’t need to overwhelm or divulge all the details of the tragedy. Check in with them to see if they are hearing the news from school or from friends, and be open to listening to them and hearing their concerns.

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14+ years

The oldest group of children, 14+ and up, are much more mature and emotionally ready to hear the details about trauma and tragedy but tempered by their own initiative. In other words, don’t bombard them with all the details and emotion. This is the age group to really have a dialogue and more detailed conversation. Most importantly, this age group must have an outlet to take action regarding injustice, loss, and pain. Involving them in planning a prayer vigil, doing some type of commemorative art or event, and creating an interfaith dialogue program for example are ideal cathartic events. Even younger children could also do some type of activity, like write a card to the family of the victims or donate money to their charity work in Syria and Palestine as a means to bring closure to loss.

Ultimately, your stability as a parent is vital at every age so the children can feel they have a role model who is sturdy, reliable, and safe who can emit the presence of mind that life is good despite its challenges, and that Allah is just and we rely on Him. Always begin with the mercy and justice of Allah (swt) as the ground from which all our stability in this life arises. Guide your children according to their age towards the surety of faith that Allah is ever-watchful and all final judgments are His.

“We shall set up scales of justice for the day of Judgement, so that not a soul will be dealt with unjustly in the least. And if there be (no more than) the weight of a mustard seed, we will bring it (to account): and enough are we to take account.” [Al-Qur‚Äôan¬†21:47].

Be aware of what children may be hearing in school, and take a proactive stance to meet with your school administration to discuss the traumatic event and how it might impact your child or non-Muslim children in the school. Let the school know you are sensitive to any potential negative commentary about Muslims given the political atmosphere at this time. Additionally, talk with your child’s teacher to let her or him know about the recent events and how your child seems to be coping with it. This open dialogue and connection with the school is vital in general, but particularly at sensitive times like this shooting in Chapel Hill.
It is imperative that Muslim families find their place within their respective society where their beliefs, rights, and civic presence is respected. This experience requires proactive discussion within mosques, communities, school environments, and perhaps even in the work-place of the adults.¬† Parents are the role models of the children and the tone and actions one takes provides the vehicle by which the children will move in the future. If no action is taken to be engaged broadly, then Muslim children face the unpleasant position of “straddling the fence” about their identity as a person of faith or a person of society. Our Holy Prophet (saws) and the infallible progeny (as) give us examples of civic engagement and solid religious identities. Their advice regarding neighbourliness,
“The neighbourhoods develop and last longer because of good relations maintained by the neighbours there.”¬† – Al Waafi, Vol 3, p. 96.
Also in this same collection of ahadith we have the advice,
“A momin is one through whom the lives and properties of others will be protected. A Muslim is one, from whose hands and mouth other Muslims are safe…” – Al Waafi, Vol 14, p. 48.
These ahadith give us an important picture of being engaged broadly not just creating mosque oriented communities that are insulated from the outside world.  The consistency you demonstrate as a believer in all realms of your life will give your children an excellent model for how to be Muslim in your respective society.
Act promptly and ask for help if you feel your child is not coping well with the news or is experiencing any type of backlash in the school environment. Seek out the school counselor, the imam of your mosque, or other worthy mentors for support and help. Turn to prayer as well for support and guidance to deal with the crisis and its implications. Ask for the Holy Prophet (saws) and the Infallibles (as) to assist you and guide you through this; never forget the spiritual world is attentive to us and we are not alone.
Make sure you deal with your own anger and frustration about this tragic shooting in Chapel Hill and that you can channel it in healing and helpful ways. Just as your children need support, you may as well, act promptly to make sure you are healing too. You cannot offer stability when you are not feeling it oneself.
[pullquote]One way I deal with events like this is to be politically active and voice the message that I feel needs to be heard[/pullquote]I have spoken to my children about this event. The youngest, 11 needs comfort and stability to cope and suggested to me when I told her I was preparing these comments that cuddling up, having a big bowl of ice cream and listening to a beloved book or watching a special movie would make her feel better. My two eldest, 15 and 17, will be attending a vigil with me and jumah prayers in honor of the victims. They are praying with me for the victims, expressing concerns regarding the pursuit of justice in this case, assisting me in setting up a town-hall discussion at our local mosque, and doing a fabulous job profiling the perpetrator as they get details of the case. They have a voice and a viewpoint about what is happening, and I am serving as a guide through this experience. As a public speaker, one way I deal with events like this is to be politically active and voice the message that I feel needs to be heard; so I have done a piece with AhluBayt TV on Wednesday, the 11th of February, and will be engaging the interfaith community and youth of my Muslim community to deal with this tragedy and educate about “hate-crimes”. Inshallah, we can all find ways to cope, meet our children’s needs, heal and progress as a community, and continue to uphold our religious guidelines for a fair and tolerant civil society.
If you have any questions or would like to share your experience as a parent, feel free to do so in the comments section below.