'The psychological effect is alarming': Parenting through political unrest, a pandemic and other traumatic events

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Supporters of former president Jacob Zuma in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Johannesburg have taken to the streets in sporadic unrest.
Supporters of former president Jacob Zuma in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Johannesburg have taken to the streets in sporadic unrest.
Darren Stewart/Gallo Images

As South Africa once again faces challenges that rock our daily lives, parents across the country are stressed and anxious as they try to protect their children from further trauma.

From political unrest to taxi wars to school closures, it's hard to shield our children from everything that is going on around us, while we as adults also try to keep ourselves safe, sane and secure.

It may feel futile though, as we are bombarded by media, true and false, that seems to show that the country is on fire.  

Save the Children South Africa CEO, Steve Miller, confirms that things are indeed grim for many children right now. "Covid-19 has not only robbed children of their education, their safety and their health, it's robbed them of their childhood and the most vulnerable among us are paying the highest price," he says. 

'We have no choice but to get this right' 

"For too many children, missing school means that they may never return; a caregiver losing his or her income means children go hungry; and increased pressures and stress on families mean that children experience more violence." 

All of this has been further exacerbated, he says, by the violence that has erupted in communities across South Africa in the past week, disrupting transport and wrecking informal businesses.

"The destruction, closure, and transport challenges jeopardise already fragile income streams and in turn the fragility of a household's food security," he describes.

"As a country, we have been unable to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of children during this time of crises. We owe it to children to protect the rights that they rely on to survive, thrive and be safe. We have no choice but to get this right," Miller stresses. 

Also see: OPINION | In 4 days, looters have condemned our mothers and sisters to a life of hardship

Children caught up in political unrest 

Yani Horn, a director at Save the Children South Africa explained to Parent24 how children get caught up in political unrest.

"Currently, in South Africa most children are out of school as a result of Level 4 lockdown. Unfortunately, they are being caught up in all kinds of things like the unrest that we see today," she says.

Schools are protective places, she explains, which provide children not only a place to learn, but a safe space to spend the day, with friends away from potential danger.

Children get involved in unrest for two reasons, Horn says. 

"Children, especially in adolescent years are willing to explore new ways of doing things, and unfortunately, this includes risky behaviour. When they get together with friends or they watch the adults engage in behaviour such as looting, they want to get involved as well," she says.

Another reason, she tells us, is that it is a sad reality that parents have sometimes involved their children in the looting by taking them along as extra hands to help carry the looted goods. 

Also read: Men should spend on average 50 minutes more a day on household duties, report finds 

'The psychological effect is alarming' 

We asked her what impact the rioting, unrest and looting has on children who are exposed, either in person or via the media and their family and she revealed that the psychological effects of the recent violence on children is alarming.

"There have been reports that children are suffering from fear and stress, with some even having nightmares after regularly hearing loud bangs and shooting within their communities," she reveals. 

The long-term effects of this situation must not be underestimated, as many children may have difficulty coping with the violence they have witnessed, she says, leading to children to become traumatised in the long-term.

Horn tells Parent24 that children are primarily exposed to looting by their parents and caregivers, the very people who should be their role models. 

"When this happens, theft becomes normalised in a child's mind, and they believe it is okay to take what they want without permission. There are long-term implications for this kind of behaviour that children do not realise - looting is in essence, criminal behaviour. This could result in long-term patterns of criminality being set." 

What do we say when they look to us? 

So what to do? How do we navigate these challenges to ensure our own immediate survival, while protecting the next generation and setting them on a different path, one that leads to a better future for all? 

And what do we say when they look to us for answers to the chaos around them?

Horn says that ultimately, parents are primarily responsible for ensuring the safety of their children. Therefore, parents have to ensure that their children are not involved in unrest and looting and have a watchful eye on them if they are not working, and to ensure that they have proper care when they are going to work. 

"Ultimately, the best way for children to be in a safe space is for them to be in school, doing what children should be doing – getting an education," she stresses.   

Must read: 'Our kids are struggling': Vanessa Raphaely offers insight and tips as we navigate the pandemic 

'It is okay to feel scared' 

Kate Rowe, a wellness coach and founder of, tells us that we need to validate our children's feelings and create a safe connected space for them to express what they are feeling.

While she suggests parents limit watching the news or any media coverage about what is going on right now, if children are exposed it is best to talk about how they feel and remind them that they are safe.

"It is okay to feel scared. We can feel scared and brave at the same time," she explains.

"Stick to the feelings, and stay out of 'what if' scenarios or imagined events. If your kids are struggling with expressing using words, try drawing or moving as a way to help them feel through the big feeling," she suggests. 

Find people you can talk to and get support from, if you are feeling overwhelmed yourself, she adds.

She says that parents should do their best to regulate their own emotions without pushing them aside or dumping them on their kids.

"Staying connected to yourself and your child is essential. If your kids feel disconnected from you they can feel even more unsafe and unsure. Your presence when they are interacting with you is important," she stresses.

Rowe also says parents and caregivers should be clear, direct and factual. 

"Don't avoid talking about what is going on, but do be selective and aware not to overwhelm your child with the information you share," she says, and provides the following tips: 

  • It is okay to tell your child that you are feeling worried or angry. 
  • It is okay to let your child know that what is happening in the world is not okay for you and that we can all find ways to make the world a kinder place. 
  • It is okay to say you do not know right now, but still encourage your children to ask questions, even if you cannot answer them.

Keeping the dialogue flowing and the connection open even when you are talking about challenging things is key.

IN PHOTOS | 'It's a lifetime duty': A day in the life of Africa's working parents  

 'Children are looking for safety'

Lindsay Braman, a US-based Counseling Psychologist agrees that big questions from young kids are hard.

"The balance between dismissing or overwhelming with too-grown-up answers is hard to navigate," she admits, but offers a "north star to follow", sharing that "most kids aren't looking for facts and forecasting, they are looking for safety".

She explains that parents, and teachers and caregivers, can soothe kids and also help build resilience to future adversity, when our responses to these questions highlight strength, identity, and relationships.

'Parenting is already incredibly difficult'

"Parenting is already incredibly difficult," she writes, "but when a child has experienced a traumatic event or series of traumatic events, the challenging challenges of parenting can be magnified."

She shares that much of supporting a child through and beyond a traumatic experience boils down to attachment and attuned caregiving.

She writes that it’s about helping an individual child process in a way that helpful for them, which is not the same way that adults process.

Supporting kids post-trauma includes providing support, without asking too many questions and engaging with children through play - not conversations. Support can also include accessing child-focused mental health professionals when appropriate, she says.


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