Recent events have brought about much hand wringing and soul searching. Six teenagers from Quebec fly to Turkey on route to Syria. Jihadi John is identified as a British Citizen who has been described as gentle and kind before radicalization. Someone hints that harassment by MI5 pushed him into adopting this murderous personae. Someone else suggests that these youths are “alienated” by their western societies, meaning England and Canada in these cases.
How can this happen? How can a young person transform or be transformed in a matter of weeks or months from a fun loving, music loving, facebooking, photo sharing, academically successful teenager into a Jihadi fanatic?
How much of this is our fault? How real are their grievances? Do these grievances explain anything?
Well, these are not adults making a decision about their life trajectories. They are adolescents. And in the evolving socialization and developing brain of every human adolescent there comes a moment (a moment that can last a few months or a year or two) when the pathways of teenage idealism and teenage opposition intersect. This can be a moment of creativity, a moment when a teenager sets off on a good path, determined to do better than her parents, maybe save the environment, stamp out racism, help the poor, invent the personal computer or a new form of music. But it can also be a dangerous and vulnerable moment. And a moment that can be exploited by an unscrupulous adult – a cult leader, a criminal gang, the propaganda of Madison Avenue or slick videos from ISIS.
Reflexive opposition to parents is a natural phase of individuation, of becoming separate, of developing independence. “She argues with me about everything,” a parent will say. Or, as my son-in-law said to me recently, regarding my 15 year old grandson, “He never listens to me; how come he listens to you?”
And then we have idealism. CBC has an annoying habit of interviewing 10 year olds about a progressive program in the school system. I watch these kids on TV, microphone before them, struggling to remember and then repeat the platitudes they have been fed by the adults in charge. All well and good. But there will come a time in their adolescence when these kids notice that the adults around them, especially their parents, don’t really live up to those platitudes. Not completely anyway. In the Christian home the teen will shout at her parents, “How can you call yourself a Christian? You only go to church on Easter Sunday.” “How can you eat meat when you know how badly these animals are treated?”
I don’t know first-hand the equivalent in a Moderate Moslem home but I am sure it happens.
Add some confusion, some anxiety about the future, to this teen who is now able to discern the wide gap between the platitudes, the instructions and admonitions and recipes for life spelled out in our holy books and the actual lives of her parents and other adults, perhaps living Moslem-lite, perhaps drinking some alcohol, perhaps not fasting religiously. This child will prove fertile ground for the propaganda of ISIS: Playing to the teenager’s natural opposition to her parents; playing to her idealism; promising to staunch the confusion, to alleviate the anxiety; offering a role, a defined role and purpose, a part in a bigger play. To say nothing of everlasting life, joy and fulfillment, and, for some, a righteous excuse to wreak havoc and revenge.
So parents, brothers and sisters, community and religious leaders, family doctors, teachers and counselors, be aware of this vulnerability in all teens. Monitor. Watch for the signs of undue influence by cult leaders, drug dealers, middle aged men in another city, and this new horror in our town: ISIS.
Editor’s Note – For Part I see Rat Brains, Youth, and Jihadists. Dr Dawson is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of The Adolescent Owner’s Manual. Library Journal said of his book “Dawson’s understated sense of humor translates well to text. While there are a plethora of books available on parenting teens, his to-the-pointness recommends this for busy readers.” For a video book trailer see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VCrKf1lV2o