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Reunited - Then the Trauma

2 August 2007

By Pieter van Zyl

His tiny hand is clasped tightly in his mother's and the joy in the little boy's beaming face is nearly tangible. He was missing for nearly a month and he's delighted to be back with his mom.

He was abducted from his home in Alexandra, Johannesburg, but was found and safely reunited with his mother. Fortunately the story of his ordeal has a happy ending and you would think all's well that ends well. But that's wishful thinking.

On the picture left is the same little boy taken the day after his return. Three-year-old Lesley Mhlanga, who only 24 hours earlier couldn't stop smiling, is now standing with his head bowed and his back against the wall. He has been crying all night and there will be many tears to come.

Lesley was abducted from his mom's house at the end of June. A week later he was found more than 100 km away in Mmotong Ga Mabotja, a town near Polokwane, in the company of an 18-year-old.

A villager smelt a rat and called the police. Lesley was found safe and sound, fast asleep in a sparsely furnished house.

Initially there were joyful celebrations at house No 58 in Alexandra. Doctors confirmed Lesley had suffered no visible injuries except for a few small abrasions on his head.

But the first evening after his return his mom, Neriah, realised something was seriously wrong with her son. He wept inconsolably. The next day he was subdued.

Days after his return he still shied away from people. He would play for a while then suddenly burst into tears. Neriah can no longer leave him on his own with his playgroup where he fitted in so easily before. She now takes him along to her charring job.

Lesley is showing classic trauma symptoms, experts say.

He has separation anxiety, says Johannesburg family therapist Liz Dooley. ''It's hard for him to grasp it wasn't his mom who deserted him.''

The family will have to undergo at least six months' counselling, therapists say. And the sooner the family resume their normal routine the better for the traumatised little boy.

Abductions are traumatic events that we hope won't affect anyone reading this story. But there are many other circumstances where children experience separation anxiety, such as when a parent has to go on a business trip or is admitted to hospital for surgery. If you know you're going to be separated from your child and understand how to handle it, the experience needn't have traumatic consequences for your child.


Many children suffer from separation anxiety at some stage in their lives but there are ways of alleviating the consequences. They cope better with being separated from their primary carer if they feel safe and secure at home, says Professor Awie Greeff, a family psychologist at Stellenbosch University. They know you'll be back, that you love them and won't leave them on their own.

Infants start developing separation anxiety between the age of eight months and a year, child development experts say. They often cry when you leave the room, which is normal behaviour and a sign of normal development and that there's a healthy bond between parent and child.

Children this age often recover quickly if you have to leave them behind for longer, provided they're left in the care of a loving person.

Separation anxiety tails off between the age of two and three when children are able to understand if you explain something to them, such as that you're just quickly going shopping and will fetch them from their granny as soon as you're done.

However if children older than four still have a serious reaction when you leave and complain of nightmares, stomachache, nausea and vomiting there could be a more serious underlying problem.


Separation from a parent due to divorce or even a business trip can be hard on children.

Although children are mostly attached to their mom they also miss their dad and cry when he goes away. Young children in particular who can't grasp what's happening must be given special attention at the time.

''Children worry about their parents,'' therapist Liz Dooley says. ''They need constant reassurance that everything is fine with their mom or dad.''

It's a good idea for moms and dads who go on long business trips to phone or even write letters regularly. Send pictures and reassure your children you're still part of their life even though you're not home for supper every evening.

''If you stay in regular contact it will be easier for children to let you back into the family structure when you get home.''

Arrange with your partner that you'll call at a specific time so all the children are home when the phone rings, Cape Town child psychologist Ria Kotze suggests. Encourage older kids to make a note of the time in their school diaries so they don't forget and let them write down beforehand things they want to say and ask.

Meanwhile, whether you're dealing with separation caused by divorce, travel or family illness it's a good idea to maintain the family routine. Coping mechanisms when a child has been abducted also apply to less traumatic separations.

If the usual routine at home is disrupted try to get things back to normal as soon as possible, says Pauline Moaoa, a social worker at the Soweto Family Life Centre. It makes children's world safer and more predictable and helps them to restore their trust in their carers or to retain it in one parent when the other goes off.


--Leave the children with someone they know and they get on with – a grandmother, aunt or close friend – and who can stay in your home. This way the children sleep in their own beds and are in familiar surroundings.

--Tell your kids days in advance that you'll be away for a while. Say things such as, ''You're so lucky. Granny will be here next week to put you to bed when I'm away. It's going to be such fun!''

--Try to say goodbye when your kids aren't hungry, tired or restless.

--If they have to stay in a place they don't know well let them gradually get acquainted with their surroundings and situation. Visit the house for a few hours so they can get to know the lie of the land. If you leave the children in the care of an au pair ensure your children get to know her well before you leave.

--Because young children don't understand the concept of time use things they knows such as their favourite TV programme. Tell them you'll see them again the third time after it has been on TV or after they've had supper. Or make a wall chart so they can mark off the ''sleeps'' until your return.

--It's important that you feel the carer will be able to cope when your children start crying or become hysterical. It will help if you arrange a time to call her to ensure the child has calmed down. It takes most children between 15 and 20 minutes to calm down after you've left by which time their attention has been distracted with toys or friends.

--When you go to hospital ask the carer to bring your children to see you so they can be sure you haven't disappeared.

--Give them a picture of the you and them together so they can look at it when they miss you. Tell them to hold their favourite blanket or cuddly toy when they miss you and to talk to the toy to make them feel better.

--If you're going far away to another city or country start reading the children stories about the place long before you leave. Show them on a map exactly where the place is. Make copies of pictures or print pictures from the internet and put them up on a wall so they can see where in the world you are.


In the wake of such a distressing event let your child open up when he's ready. Ask questions such as, ''Were you scared? Were you worried you wouldn't get food? Are you cross with me?''

The secret is to put yourself in his shoes, social worker Pauline Moaoa says. ''Let him tell you what went through his mind when he was separated from you. Don't discount the answers even if they don't make sense. Listen to what he says.''

Unlike adults children are unable to express their feelings clearly. ''A child may feel anger towards his mom because it's the only way he can express what he's feeling,'' says Charl Louw, a psychologist at Men and Women Against Child Abuse.

If he's scared keep him with you. It's advisable for the child to have his primary carer with him for the first few days but not for longer or else he'll become used to the ''benefits'' of being a victim, Charl says.

Life goes on which means carrying on with school, homework and exams. But be patient. Give him plenty of physical contact. ''Talk to him and hug him,'' he suggests.

If the traumatised child has brothers and sisters parents must guard against treating him differently to before. This will reinforce the role of victim and upset the other children

''Children are often braver and more innovative than you think and have the ability to find their way through a crisis,'' Charl says. ''Coming to terms with bad things is a normal learning process all children have to go through and not even experts can protect them from this. But if the problem behaviour persists for longer than a month and there's no sign of improvement or it becomes worse you must get professional help.'


To see the article as it appeared in YOU, click on the links below:

Reunited Pg 1.pdf

Reunited Pg 2.pdf

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from Huisgenoot/YOU.

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