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  • Pierre Immelman

Crisis in our lives affects the children

Charmain said to the therapist: “I dreamt that we were all sleeping and then someone put our home on fire. I was scared. We grabbed our most precious belongings and rushed out, but we couldn’t leave our car was put on fire too. Some people tried calling the police but there were no signal. Some were screaming for the police to come but they didn’t come. And, before I woke up everyone was trying to put out the fires. When I woke up, I was scared.”

Night after night she wake up in fear – fear that her life is in danger. Wondering in the dead of night laying there scared in silence if the fires and screaming terror will start again. Her nightmares and fears are characteristic of many children all over the world today in the aftermath of violence and irresponsible speeches of leaders. Children’s emotional reactions to crises and disasters vary in nature and severity. Their reactions are determined by their age, prior experiences, personality, temperament and the immediacy of the disasters to their own lives. However, there are commonalities in how children feel when their lives are disrupted, whether it is separation or the divorce of parents , death of someone who was important to the child, the impact of COVID-19, the father or mother being laid off or retrenched, and many other crisis’s. The general reactions include feelings of loss of control and stability, self-centred concerns (for food, safety, and clothing), and grief reactions (denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance).

In general, the closer a child has been to the centre of the violence, the more severe and long lasting their reactions may be. In the South African context with hijacking and farmer murders taking place pockets all over South Africa and the mainstream media flourishing on sensationalism, intense coverage on television the violence is as close as our living rooms, and many children of all races and culture are suffering.

How can we heal? All this horror guides us to true universal reality. We need to be honest about the truth. We need to accept the truth for what it is. We need to walk the talk to acceptance, compassion, love and as people all work together to effect positive change. But first we must start with ourselves before we can love, accept, or even get along with another.

Children are bruised by crisis. But they can also heal quickly if given the chance to explore their feelings. Children can also help us, “the grown-ups”, to heal.

Emotional reactions vary in nature and severity from child to child. Their reactions are determined by their age, previous experiences, temperament, personality, and the immediacy of the disaster to their own lives. However, some commonalities exist in how they feel when their lives are disrupted by a disaster.

General reactions include feelings of loss of control and stability, self-centred concerns, and grief (reactions like denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance).

Children’s reactions:

· Become more active and restless, or have difficulty concentrating.

· Worry where they will live and what will happen to them, (if the single home setup is broken up)

· Become easily upset, crying and whining. Or,

· Be quiet and withdrawn, appear numb to their feelings, and not wanting to talk about the experience.

· Feel neglected by parents who are busy trying clean up and rebuild their lives.

· Become afraid of loud noises, rain, storms, etc.

· Be angry. They may hit, throw, kick, show their anger, often with little provocation.

· Be afraid to be left alone or afraid to sleep alone. They may have nightmares and want to sleep with a parent or another person.

· Behave as they did when they were younger – may suck their thumb, wet bed, as for a bottle, and want to be held a lot.

· Re-experience the trauma event through intense recollections, dreams, flashbacks or hallucinations.

· Have symptoms of illness such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, tummy aches, fever and poor appetite.

· Refuse to go to school or to childcare arrangements. The child may not want to be out of your sight.

· Feel guilty that they may have caused the disaster because of some previous behaviour or thoughts.

· Be afraid that the crisis may recur. They may ask over and over whether it will happen again.

· Not show any outward signs until weeks or months later.

Teachers might say parents are responsible for children’s social competence. Parents might say it is in the schools where children can best learn to get along with other children and to develop social skills. I would argue that we all are responsible. You may notice several of these reactions in children immediately following a disaster. If you are a teacher or a professional, these suggestions may be useful in your approach with parents. If you are a parent, try what seems appropriate and if reactions continue over numerous weeks, or seem extreme and more severe, seek professional assistance.


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