What to do if children are confused or traumatised by the unrest

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Dr Pixley Ka Seme street in Durban strewn with dirt and filth caused after five days of looting.
Dr Pixley Ka Seme street in Durban strewn with dirt and filth caused after five days of looting.
Rajesh Jantilal/AFP

The unrest in KZN and Gauteng has wreaked havoc and has destabilised many parts of society, leaving many children confused and traumatised.

So far, around 30 schools have been looted and vandalised in KZN and one school in Pinetown was burnt to the ground. In several news reports, some children were seen participating in the looting sprees. Women were also seen carrying their babies on their backs as they looted stores.

“They’ve been saving money so that they can buy toys and other stuff they want at the China Mall here in Pietermaritzburg. They were so heartbroken when I told them that the store was looted and burnt down, they couldn’t believe it. The little one kept on asking if they stole and burnt all the toys.”
Pietermaritzburg mother, Hazel Mabaso

A 14-year-old boy was killed on Monday at a supermarket at the Southgate Centre in Pietermaritzburg after police fired rubber bullets to disperse crowds. He was shot in the chest and died at the scene.

The grandfather of a 14-year-old girl who witnessed the shooting said she was still very shaken up by the ordeal.

“She’s okay but she’s not her usual self. She’s very quiet and isn’t eating as much as she used to. I’m worried about it and I’m thinking of taking her to my doctor,” said the man.

A Pietermaritzburg mother, Hazel Mabaso, who has two daughters, aged seven and 13 years old, told Weekend Witness that she sat her children down and explained to them what was happening.

“They’ve been saving money so that they can buy toys and other stuff they want at the China Mall here in Pietermaritzburg.

“They were so heartbroken when I told them that the store was looted and burnt down, they couldn’t believe it. The little one kept on asking if they stole and burnt all the toys,” said Mabaso.

She said her children were also not happy that they were stuck inside the house the whole week because they had to stop their normal outings to the mall and their visits to the park.

“We thought that they were still too young to really understand what was happening, so we chose not to tell them. They have been asking a lot of questions though because they can see that things are not normal.”
Chase Valley mother

Another Chase Valley mother, who asked that her name not be published, told Weekend Witness that she and her husband chose not to tell their sons, aged seven and eight, about the unrest.

“We thought that they were still too young to really understand what was happening, so we chose not to tell them. They have been asking a lot of questions though because they can see that things are not normal,” she said.

The woman said her sons’ schools have been sending them tips and advice on how parents need to handle the situation.

A Pelham mother of a 10-year-old boy said her son was scared all week because of all the gunshots ringing out in the neighbourhood.

“Many children and young people have been fearing for their lives ... The long-term impact for some may be post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Educational psychologist, Naomi Holdt

The mother said on Monday night a vehicle parked in front of their house and about five men got off and started whistling and calling the dogs. She said it appeared as if they wanted to enter the yard, but luckily the dogs stayed far and began barking excessively.

“It was scary for the whole family. Luckily, they left.”

She said on Wednesday night their power went off just after 5 pm. “My son got hysterical and started crying. He began asking if this was ‘sabotage’ and if we were going to be attacked. I asked him if he knows what the word means, and he explained. I was impressed he knows what sabotage means. I gave him big hugs and tried to calm him down.”

Naomi Holdt, an educational psychologist, said the impact of a pandemic has significantly increased mental health struggles such as anxiety and depression among children, teens and adults.

“The trauma created as a result of the recent unrest has increased that anxiety along with feelings of disempowerment, insecurity and uncertainty.

“Many children and young people have been fearing for their lives ... The long-term impact for some may be post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If a child continues to demonstrate ongoing signs of being traumatised or is struggling to process the events of the past week, parents and caregivers should seek professional assistance,” she said.

ALSO READ | Boy (15) shot dead outside shop during unrest in Pietermaritzburg, KZN

Educational psychologist Naomi Holdt
Educational psychologist Naomi Holdt

Of significant concern right now, she added, is what are we teaching our children by our actions and responses to these circumstances.

“Parents and primary caregivers are our children’s greatest role models. They learn not only from what we say, but more importantly what we do and how we navigate things. In times like these, our children look to us as their safe place and will model how we respond, how we judge and how we fear,” said Holdt.

“Finding ways to deal with our own stress is critically important. The safer and more securely connected our children feel to their parents and caregivers now are important factors in how they will cope long-term.”
Educational psychologist, Naomi Holdt

She said a primary impact of stress on adults is that it disconnects them from their children, and in times of trauma and crisis children need connection to feel safe. “Finding ways to deal with our own stress is critically important. The safer and more securely connected our children feel to their parents and caregivers now are important factors in how they will cope long-term.”

Holdt said the fact that many schools have been looted and some even burnt, will create feelings of instability and higher stress in children.

“Schools are meant to be a safe space for our children, especially given that so many children in our country may not have the stability they need at home. This leaves many children without a ‘safe’ space and is a significant concern,” she said.

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