The awful advice you need to give your teen before they travel in a terrorised world

Letting our kids travel in a terrorised world.
Letting our kids travel in a terrorised world. Photo: Getty Images

Early this year I shot an email to a friend telling her that my 18-year-old son, Nathaniel, was about to embark on a three-week trip to Europe to celebrate his high school graduation. I confessed that instead of being excited on his behalf, or even looking forward to three weeks of kid-less quiet, I was racked with fear.

My friend is tough-minded, and I was hoping that she'd tell me I was being ridiculous.

Instead, she replied by saying that her youngest son had recently been invited to a Bar Mitzvah party at a Manhattan nightclub and that her husband had seriously considered not allowing him to go. This was less than a week after 49 people were killed and 53 others wounded in a terrifying hate crime aimed at the LGBT community at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. "Sick that we have to think about this sort of stuff," she wrote.

So much for easing my anxiety.

Nathaniel, who was planning to travel with friends from school, had been talking about this trip for years and saving his money from odd jobs, birthdays and holiday gifts. His dad and I bought him a round-trip ticket to London as a graduation gift, but other than that, he was footing the bill. After a stressful senior year of standardised test prep and exams, a challenging course load, endless basketball practices and applying to colleges - well, I didn't have the heart to tell him he couldn't go.

But I also didn't have the stomach to easily wish him bon voyage.

Before the kids had finalised their itinerary-focused on cities and towns in England, France and Italy - I reached out to another friend, one who has travelled the world with her family and, as far as I could tell, has never shied away from an adventure. "Would she let her own 18-year-old son go overseas right now?" I asked.

"Yes," she replied, but with a caveat: Given the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, she recommended that we limit Nathaniel's options to Ireland, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Austria. "It's totally irrational of me because horrible things happen everywhere," she conceded. "But somehow these places feel safer." Then she suggested I double check whether any of the aforementioned countries were actively fighting the Islamic State.

I pressed on. The sensible me understood that stuffing a backpack with clothes and a toothbrush, buying a Eurail pass and trekking through Europe is a rite of passage taken by countless teenagers every year. Going abroad would be good for Nathaniel, helping him to grow and become more independent before going off to college.


But I was not operating from a point of reason. So I countered my fears - rational and not - with a dose of helicopter parenting.

Over the coming weeks, I "helped" the boys plan their trip, making air, train and hostel reservations. In other words, I exercised control, ostensibly in the name of their teenage ineptitude but, truth be told, because it made me feel as if I were somehow keeping them safe.

Never mind that through all of this, I was consistently, if kindly, cautioned to stand down by my husband and needled by another mum of a boy on the trip. Yet, as it happened, I was far from alone in my fears.

One mum, whose son was also travelling with Nathaniel, admitted that she wanted to tell her boy not to go to museums, sports arenas, cafes catering to Americans or concerts or clubs that featured American bands. Of course, she knew this was unreasonable, and in the end restrained herself, but only because she worried that the boy's other parent would not approve. "I thought she would be furious at me for scaring him to death," she said.

A dad whom I have known since our boys were in pre-kindergarten together gave his son the usual advice to be wary of pickpockets and cons who target tourists. But as an Israeli who was raised with war, terror and an awareness that only comes from being surrounded by your enemies, he also warned him: "God forbid anything happens, don't run, drop to the floor and cover yourself with whatever you can, even if it is with bodies."

"The mere fact that you have to tell your kid something like that," he remarked later, "is an awful, terrible thing."

But I get it: You do have to tell them now, even though you know full well that no amount of planning or warning will actually keep them from harm.

During the short time that Nathaniel was travelling in Europe, terrorists armed with bombs and guns killed 42 people and injured hundreds more at the airport in the Turkish capital.

Shortly after he got home there was another attack, this one along the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice, France, where people had gathered on a beautiful summer evening to watch fireworks at a Bastille Day celebration. More than 80 people were killed, at least 10 of them children or teenagers. Among them was a student at the University of California at Berkeley, where my son will soon start school. A week after that, a gunman killed nine people at a German shopping mall.

Even though Nathaniel and his friends have returned home safely, I have spent these past few weeks wrestling with the question of how I am supposed to parent him toward independence at a time fraught with so much violence and fear.

I've wondered how the mum who gently mocked me for doing too much and for making myself nuts with worry had managed to play it so cool.

As it turned out, she hadn't. Recently she acknowledged that right before the boys left, she gave her son just one piece of advice: "Wherever you go," she told him, "restaurants, museums, churches, airports, train stations, parks - look for the nearest exit."

At a time in their lives when we should be encouraging our children to look for a way in, to enter the world with open hearts and minds, to embrace all it has to offer, we are sadly left to warn them to look for the fastest way out.

Washington Post