Parents must step up to help kids navigate violent society

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South African parents need to step it up to help children navigate the effects of the violent society they are growing up in, says a child psychologist.

According to the BMJ global health journal, South African children experience disproportionally high levels of violence. Even when the violence is not perpetrated on them physically, children in South Africa are often exposed to  atrocious levels of violence, including witnessing murder and rape.

Lerato Msimanga, a child psychologist, says parents need to play their role in helping children navigate through the violence around them to lessen the damage that may be caused.

“Children are still learning how to behave and still learning how to self-regulate emotionally, being exposed to violent behaviour affects how they view themselves and the world in general. It’s important for children to have an adult in their lives the help them make sense of what they witnessed,” says Msimanga.

She says the closer the child is to the perpetrator of violence or the victim the more damage is done. The intensity and how often a child is subjected to violence also determine how badly the child will be affected.

“The psychological damage happens in how they relate to themselves and the rest of the world. Often such kids are hyper-vigilant, constantly expecting danger around them. They would become anxious or withdrawn. It is also difficult to trust the adults around them.”

Msimanga says children who have been exposed to violence often become bullies or tolerate being bullied.

She says emotional neglect of children is a concern and often parents concentrate on meeting only material needs.

“Kids are often left to their own devises to make sense of their own experiences. The danger is that they will use other kids who may possibly have similar issue to help them make sense…There needs to be spaces where the children can speak about it and have someone walk them through it.”

Msimang says there needs to be a culture where people know that it’s okay to speak to someone about what you are going through.

“Often it helps to have another person listen to you, at the end of the day, you feel understood, you feel validated. It builds your sense of self. We are relational beings and often we make sense of ourselves through relating to others.”

She urges parents or community members to seek relevant help from Social workers in the community, counsellors at schools and churches.