For Rahul Welde’s 10-year-old twin sons, the Mumbai attacks were more than just reports on television. Singapore-based Welde, 40, vice-president, media, Unilever, was a guest at the Taj on 26 November when the terrorists entered the hotel. “When I realized what was happening, I had to make that call to tell my wife that they should be prepared for the worst. I last contacted her at around 4.30am Singapore time (2am India time) to say that I had decided to try and escape.”
Welde says it was then that his wife Shabina woke their sons and told them what was happening in Mumbai. “Till I got out almost 2 hours later, my family had no way of knowing what had happened to me since I could not talk to them. All the information they got was from CNN and other channels.”
At the Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai, children, especially those in the middle school, are numb. Some, such as the two sons of Taj Mahal Palace and Tower’s general manager Karambir Kang, will never return. Others like 10-year-old Armaan are back but without any parents to go home to. “We have lost children, parents, grandparents, a former teacher, an alumnus. There is a lot of fear among the children,” says principal Meera Isaacs. “Unlike the bomb blasts, which were anonymous, suddenly terror and terrorists have a face, and the children have seen gun battles played out live on television.”
A nine-year-old student at the school whose friend lost both her parents now refuses to sleep alone. “Every night she is in my bed. Her Facebook messages from her friend say ‘pray for me’ and my daughter does not understand why this had to happen to her friend,” says the parent who did not want to be identified.
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“I don’t want to go to school today” is a plea most parents are familiar with. The usual reasons offered vary from “It’s cold” and “I haven’t done my homework” to “There is a test”. But when a child says “I am scared because of terrorists” how should parents respond? “In the last few days, I have had calls from parents saying their children are having nightmares, are refusing to go outdoors to play, do not want to go to school. And instances of bed-wetting have gone up,” says Harish Shetty, consultant psychiatrist, L.H. Hiranandani Hospital, Powai, Mumbai, who also works with the National Disaster Management Authority as a consultant.
In the past fortnight, television has brought the scary reality of the streets into our homes like never before: patrolling policemen, bomb threats, sandbags and heightened security checks are everywhere. “How can you protect them? This is such an enormous thing. And there’s been such an onslaught of graphic images,” asks actor Amrita Singh, speaking of her two children, 11-year-old Sarah and seven-year-old Ibrahim, who study at the Dhirubhai Ambani International School. Some of the school’s students have also lost their parents.
Many children across cities in India participated in candlelight vigils. Atul Yadav / PTI
There has been too much visual stimulation of the negative kind. “Parents must stop children from seeing these disturbing images of the attacks,” says Arpita Anand, a Delhi-based consultant psychologist. “It’s fine to talk to them about what happened in Mumbai, give them information and discuss their opinions but don’t let them see this disturbing imagery over and over again.”
Welde agrees. “I felt it would be better that my sons hear from me about what happened inside the Taj—what I saw, how I ran out—rather than see images on the Internet or the TV.”
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Lounge parenting columnist Gouri Dange recommends you make an extra effort to keep the family together at this time. “It is important that parents keep the normal routine going. Restrict TV watching on this. If your children argue, explain to them that by viewing these images repeatedly they are being disrespectful of the privacy of the families who have suffered.” Also, this is the time when multiple-parenting should come into full play, recommends Dr Shetty. “Grandparents, maid/nannies, teachers can play a very positive role in dispelling a child’s fears. Include them in the process of soothing your child.”
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Cathedral’s Isaacs says she has adopted a “Let them talk without intruding” policy. “We have four in-house counsellors, but I felt that the magnitude of what has happened was too much for just four of them to handle,” says Isaacs. So the school hired two additional counsellors who conducted a 6-hour professional counselling training for all its teachers on 29 November, the day before the school reopened after the tragedy. On 1 December, the day began with a special assembly in which Isaacs addressed the school, speaking not just about the attacks but also about India and pluralism and what the children themselves could bring to the table. They were advised to talk to their teachers in groups and teenage children made lists of what could be done to prevent such attacks from happening again. The school counsellors are open to talking to parents of students too.
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Welde says the one message he concentrated on communicating to his sons was that “S*** happens, but we have to learn to deal with it and carry on. I will continue to travel for work and they know that. One of my sons is fine with that but the other one is finding it tough to deal with the idea that in two weeks time we will be going to India for our annual vacation.”
On 2 December, at St Mary’s School, Mumbai, the assignment for a Hindi lesson for Class IX was to write an essay on how to prevent terrorism. “Change the politicians and increase security,” suggested Niret*, 14, who lives in Colaba, the neighbourhood that was attacked. “Yes, my friends and I feel it is Pakistan behind the shootings but first, the Indian intelligence agencies need to find out which organization is responsible and then we should ask Pakistan to help us to get those people,” he adds.
Most children have caught parts of television broadcasts and some have overheard parents and other family members talk about Pakistan and the terrorists being Islamic extremists. “Forming fixed stereotypes at a young age is harmful. Be responsible about what you say in front of the kids,” suggests Anand.
Experts recommend that parents should avoid stereotyping religious groups and, instead, point out positive role models such as actors, authors and sports personalities from different communities and countries whom the children can look up to. “In the near future, find a way to get your children to interact with Muslims from various walks of life so that they can learn more about Islam and its positive teachings,” adds Dange.
Niret’s mother Sangeeta*, who took him along for the candlelight vigil held in Mumbai on 30 November, says she wants her child to be aware of the unfolding events. “At 14, he is old enough to see the terrible carnage that can result from hatred and persecution. Also, I hope this will help him become a more active citizen.”
While sharing information is fine, most experts feel that parents should not take the moral high ground and should also avoid bringing religion into the conversation. “One child recently asked his parents why like Lord Ram, who after all talks with Ravana failed annihilated him, India could not do the same with Pakistan. Stress that terror activities are about individual actions,” says Dr Shetty.
Angry sentiments such as “we should bomb that country”, which sometimes come from children should be gently discouraged, though not banned—they need to express their anger but parents must put things in perspective.
“My sons were frustrated and angry at what had happened with me. I asked them to let go, vent their anger in any which way they wanted to, even use foul language which they are never allowed to use otherwise. I think at the end of that session we all felt a little relaxed,” says Welde.
Fortunately, for younger children the identity of the terrorist is still fuzzy. “It’s is too much information for my six-year-old to process,” says Anita*, mother of Jeeta*, who studies in Class I at Cathedral. “When she asks ‘Mama why is all this happening?’ I tell her, ‘There are some unhappy people and they just let go of their anger in this terrible way.’”
It is a good idea, say experts, to point out to children that terrorists are misguided souls. “Perhaps when you pray for peace for the victims, also include something for people who do evil things, but don’t complicate the issue by asking your children to pray for the terrorists of this Mumbai situation. It is all too raw and specific,” says Dange.
Priyanka P. Narain contributed to this story.
* Some names have been withheld on request.