With civil unrest sweeping across parts of South Africa, many parents are left wondering how they should talk to their children about the rioting, looting and overriding pervasive feelings of fear and insecurity.
We cannot tell our children that we are not scared, neither can we promise them that everything will be alright. In an enlightening conversation with veteran educator and counsellor, Dereck Jackson recently, we discussed how you have to lay out the facts honestly with your children in order to retain their trust. Taking time to help them to distinguish between facts and feelings is incredibly valuable.
The scenes of rioting and looting that your kids are seeing on TV are real and it has worried you too. You can say, “Yes, this is terrible, and I am worried. While I can’t promise you that everything is going to be all right very soon, we can and will handle it.”
It’s vital that you help your children unpack what that means. “Let’s look at what is being done to solve the problem right now.” At this point you may want to discuss the following, in an age-appropriate way:
- How the government has responded
- What the police and defence force are doing to restore calm and order
- The actions that the local security company has taken
- The steps you have taken to secure your home or property
- How your neighbours are helping out and helping each other
- Highlight how communities are coming together
- Find as many good news stories to share with your children as possible
When it comes to children, you need to get granular and they need real examples, things that make tangible, concrete sense to them. They also need to see you take action:
- How are you supporting neighbours and communities in need?
- How are you securing your own home?
- Replacing batteries in your garden beams
- Double checking that the house alarm is working
- Checking that you have keys in locks
- Put some extra strong locks on your doors
- You may want to install a security gate or Trellidor
- Testing your electric fence
- What conversations are they hearing that they are raising with you?
Watching you make your home more secure may sound like you are highlighting the threat and need for security, but you are also putting their minds at rest that you have taken practical steps to protect them.
If they are going back to school, you need to explain to them the steps that the school has taken to keep them safe and then tell them to enjoy their freedom within that protective environment.
Calmly share your feelings truthfully with your children. Be calm, be clear. Don’t go overboard, don’t get hysterical. They need your leadership, at this time. Parental anxiety and fear are extremely infectious.
You can give each family member the opportunity to share how they are feeling at this time. To create balance, I suggest you use the Sweets & Sours Game structure to ‘hold’ the conversation. The first round is a negative round where everyone shares what is making them feel sad, scared, or angry, etc. The second round is a positive round where everyone shares something that is making them feel safe, protected, calm, or even happy. By using a structured process every family member has the opportunity to be seen and heard. This is important because not everyone in the family is a natural talker. Even the non-talkers need airtime.
After you finish both rounds of the Sweets & Sours Game you can say something along these lines: “We can cry, worry and complain, or we can be confident that we can handle this and do what needs to be done.” As parents, you need to dig deep into your belief in your own resilience. Some people will have to work on this more than others. If you want your children to cope better with challenging environments and situations, you need to role model this for them.
Guard against parental guilt at this time. Many parents are feeling guilty that their children are growing up in an insecure world and are not able to enjoy an idyllic childhood, due to the global pandemic and unrest in South Africa. It is what it is, and it will take a long time to ‘fix things’ and bring them back into greater balance.
When you feel guilty you put your children in the driver’s seat and allow them to call the shots or manipulate you, because you feel bad for them or sorry for them. This means you are holding them in a victim space. “My poor children, shame!” Be careful of falling into the trap of minimising your children and their ability to cope with adversity. We live in an era that is going to be characterised by disruptions of many kinds. If it is not civil unrest or a global pandemic, it will be climate change or automation among many other things that are going to change the way we live and work forever.
Our reality is a moving target and will continue to be so for many years to come. Some will choose to stay (most people don’t have the option to leave) and others may choose to emigrate. Whichever camp you fall into, everyone is in a process of adjustment and transition due to the trauma of civil unrest. Emigration is a very big step that involves much-unanticipated grief and loss and takes a long time to assimilate. To stay, or to leave, both of these are big choices that require deep thought and conscious action, and should not be judged. It might be useful for you to check where you are in the Seven Stages of Adjustment and Transition.
In uncertain times, it is very important to keep a regular daily routine:
- A regular wake-up and bedtime
- Enough sleep
- Regular mealtimes
- Expect your children to continue to do the normal household chores like making the bed, closing and opening curtains, feeding the dogs and helping with the dishes
Routine provides feelings of safety and security that should not be underestimated. Boundaries are good for kids.
DON’T LEAVE THE TV ON LIVE NEWS REPORTING ALL-DAY
I lived through 9/11 with a one-year-old and a five-year-old. I was speaking in Durban, the day the Twin Towers came down in a terrorist attack and my husband was at home in Johannesburg looking after our children. On my return, my five-year-old was drawing buildings of matching towers, an aeroplane and flames. My husband had the TV on the whole time while I was away, without thinking that our son would be taking everything in.
We do need to remember that trauma can be experienced not just by living through something first hand, but also second hand from viewing age-inappropriate scenes on a screen, whether it is a violent TV show or real news reporting. Children need us to facilitate how they see or receive the news.
For your own mental health, you also need to limit how often you tune in to the news or check social media. If you become obsessed and keep feeding your fear you will find yourself in fight, flight, or freeze mode, which won’t help your or your children.
GIVE YOUR CHILDREN A PLAN B
Scenario planning is a common practice in business — to play out options should certain socio-economic or market conditions change. These are blueprints for how they might respond in certain situations. Children also respond well to blueprints for action. If they know there is a plan, they feel more calm and secure.
Think of how you prepare them with a Plan B in case you can’t collect them from school on time. What about the plan should you be hijacked with your kids in the car or you are burgled? We live in an unpredictable country.
In times of danger and unrest, children need to know what Plan B is. While not wanting to be melodramatic, think back to the bomb shelters in World War II. When the sirens went off everyone knew what to do. I know how important Plan B can be because the Plan B I taught my children is one of the things that saved my life when we were victims of a home invasion in which my husband lost his life.
This was the plan: ”If I ever wake you up in the middle of the night and tell you to run, don’t ask me why, just get out of bed, go straight to the bathroom and lock yourselves in. Do not come out until I tell you to.” I didn’t grill my children over and over again. I just told them very calmly, from time to time, when the opportunity presented itself. I didn’t make it a big thing but they knew that if something bad was to happen, whatever that might be, that there was a plan.
When we were attacked, that was exactly the plan I ran. Locking myself in the bathroom with my cellphone, and refusing to open the door when the attackers demanded, saved my life. The fact that we had solid wooden doors that didn’t yield to three-meter running leaps to kick down the door made all the difference too.
PULLING FACTS AND FEELINGS TOGETHER
Clearly lay out the facts for your children about any situation without being over-dramatic, and then help them to identify and deal with their feelings. The ABC of this approach stands for:
- Actual events or facts — what is happening/what has happened?
- Belief in your ability to cope/their ability to cope
- Consequences of the events themselves
Remember that you are dealing with facts and feelings and these will vary depending on the situation and context. If you are going to feel guilty, you will pass that on to your children. If you are going to shield them from what’s really going on, they will lose their trust in you. You have no control over what is happening. It’s not your fault. If you think it is, it is an irrational belief. You have to work on your belief system that you can handle this.
Your children need to hear that you are confident that you can handle the situation right now. This is the plan for now and when you need to create a new plan, if the situation changes, you will. This allows for flexibility, especially in situations where you do not have full control and where there is external disruption like in the Covid-19 situation: “The Government says that schools will reopen on 26 July, but that may change.” In this way, you build that flexibility into your conversations. “The plan is that you will be going back to school on x date, but if that changes for any reason, we will deal with it.
You have to tell your children what is going on, in an age-appropriate way and as calmly as you can. Do not promise them that things will be okay tomorrow. Be honest: “Yes, we are worried, but we will handle it in the best way we can.” If you instill a belief in your children that they can handle things, they will, and vice versa.