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Raising a Fearless Child

1 May 2008

By Pieter van Zyl

As many as 91 per cent of South African children have been exposed to crime. In such circumstances how do you prevent your child from becoming a fearful, anxious person?

One Monday morning 10-year-old Bongi Khumalo from Khayelitsha in Cape Town and her mom were walking to the train station as they do every morning at 6 am. From here they travel first to town and then to Rondebosch in the southern suburbs, where Bongi's mom sees her safely to school before she goes to work as a domestic worker a few blocks away from the school.

But this morning was different. Before they reached the station, they found themselves surrounded by three thugs with knives, demanding money and a cellphone. After handing over everything she could, Bongi's mom was stabbed in the arm before the thugs ran away.

This was a year ago but Bongi still hates the once-pleasant morning walks to the station. Shortly after the incident she was so traumatised her mom even considered sending her to a township school so that she didn't have to make the station trip in the mornings.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) receives scores of phone calls concerning traumatised children. A recent call was about a 13-year-old girl who had been raped in a public toilet by a man wearing a ski mask. Another was about a three-year-old boy whose mother had been raped in front of him.

How can you ensure children emotionally survive such experiences and how can you help them grow up in a crime-ridden country without becoming fearful and anxious?

It's clear they must receive help in time because research shows 91 per cent of South African children are exposed to crime. Even a second-hand experience, such as when a friend experiences crime or when children read about it or see it on TV, can be traumatic.

The result can be a serious condition such as post-traumatic stress. Even worse, children's capacity to experience empathy could be stunted and as adults they could carry on the vicious cycle of violence and crime, according to Dr Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy in America.


Be vigilant but not paranoid
There's a difference between making your children paranoid about safety and teaching them to be vigilant, says Prof Tumi Diale, an educational psychologist from Soweto who had to counsel her own five-year-old son, Katlego, after their car was stolen outside a shop.

Your own example is very important, Tumi says. If you live in fear and behave as if you're helpless children sense and see this and become anxious. Children must be reassured continually that their parents are in control.

But be honest with children and tell them why you're behaving in a particular way. The aim is to make your children aware of crime but give them safety skills so they won't feel helpless. This way they become part of the solution.

''My children know we don't go to the bank or the shops between 5 pm and 7 pm because that's when most robberies and hijackings take place,'' says Marita Rademeyer, a clinical psychologist at the Child Trauma Clinic in Pretoria.

Make children feel secure

''Give children plenty of hugs and make them feel loved,'' says Dr Tessa van Wijk, a Johannesburg trauma expert. Boost their inner strength and positive self-image by encouraging them and making them aware they can realise their dreams. Teach them to make choices but within boundaries set for their own protection.

''A child who experiences love and emotional safety at home can do anything and will have no fear,'' says Tessa.

Give your child the space to talk about his fears and show his emotions, says Tumi. ''When our car was stolen we allowed Katlego to repeat the story over and over to everyone just so he could get it out of his system.''

Create a network of reliable adults your child can talk to or phone when he's afraid – aunts, neighbours and friends' parents.

Make safety plans together

If your child says he feels unsafe ask what exactly makes him feel that way, says Dennis Vusani, a social worker at the Nonceba Family Counselling Centre for abused children in Khayelitsha.

''Discuss the fears, work through possible scenarios together and arm him with tips on what to do in specific situations.''

What should he do if a bully pushes him around and threatens him with a knife? How should he react if a strange man tries to entice him into his car? What if there's an armed robbery in a shopping centre? What are other parents teaching their children?

Teach your children practical rules such as staying in one place if they get lost in a shopping centre or staying in a lift if the doors close while they're inside and you're stuck outside the lift. Point out security guards to them so they know what they look like in case they need help.

Show a safe world

It's important to show your child there are places that are safe and where you can have fun. Find out about safe parks and beaches where children can play.

Teach your child spirituality

Spirituality makes you strong. It doesn't matter what your religion is; it's important children are told God's in control even though He sometimes allows bad things to happen to good people.


Tessa says a trauma doesn't necessarily have a bad long-term effect. ''It depends on how we rebuild our lives and how we use the pain to redirect our lives in a positive way.''

Use the trauma as an opportunity to talk to your child about ways of dealing with his fears. Give the child skills for dealing with the pain. Children often don't have the vocabulary to express their emotions, which is why it's necessary to get professional advice. You don't necessarily have to pay for it either; you can approach a support group such as Sadag.

''A traumatic childhood in South Africa doesn't necessarily have to lead to a problematic adulthood,'' says Dr William Beardslee of the Preventive Intervention Project at Harvard University's Judge Baker Children's Centre. Every child has the resilience to cope with difficult circumstances. It's the parents' job to unlock that self-confidence in their children.''

* Phone Sadag on 0860-103-645, 011-783-1474 or visit

* This article is part of the author's project for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, which was awarded to him.


To see the article as it appeared in Move! Magazine, click on the link below:

Raising a Fearles Child Pg 1.pdf

Raising a Fearless Child Pg 2.pdf

Copyright 2008. Used with permission from Drum.

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