45 minutes a day is all that's needed to solve SA's parenting crisis
Time, patience and empathy are in short supply for many of today's stressed, multi-tasking parents - and our children are suffering because of it
It is a fight I have with myself every Monday on the drive to work. Am I doing the best for my children by leaving, to fulfil my slightly selfish psychological and financial needs, while a nanny and playschool act as parents during the day? What damage is being done? A quick reality check puts it into perspective.
Separation is not a bad thing, there is love from caregivers, a grandmother. (Some) meaningful interaction late afternoon, on weekends and holidays creates a precarious balance in our household.
But, recently, a Cape Town power couple were concerned about their nine-year-old son's fist fights, constant arguments at home and his plummeting school grades, so they turned to a psychologist. The pair were surprised to find that it was their lack of availability that was turning their child into a monster.
"He just needed time. He is a much calmer child now that his mum makes time for him on a Sunday, although he wants more, and his dad works on his hobby with him," said the doctor.
Local psychologists say modern parenting is in crisis - and South Africans are worse off because of the easy and affordable accessibility of childcare.
Having two employed parents is not unusual, but what children do on their own has changed, says Joburg-based clinical psychotherapist Bruce Laing.
"For centuries parents have gone out and worked, but managed their children. This problem of the internet creating intimate roles which the parents aren't involved in - for example, in the child's social media community - is creating 'extimacy', as opposed to intimacy," says Laing.
The concept of extimacy, a word coined by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in the 1960s, was discussed at the recent International Psychoanalytical Association conference in Brazil, in the context of the modern age.
"Children are becoming anxious and depressed because they are forming the wrong relationships, often online, instead of interacting with their parents," says Laing.
Kids are becoming anxious and depressed because they're forming the wrong relationships, often online, instead of interacting with their parentsBruce Laing, clinical psychotherapist
In extreme cases, the lack of personal development can lead to children not understanding other people and developing an intolerance of others that can manifest in racism, homophobia or generally unsociable behaviour.
"There are, of course, exemplary parents, but parenting is in crisis because of the changing norms in South Africa, especially in the information age," Laing says.
Stressed parents in high-pressure jobs create a compound problem.
Jasmin Kooverjee-Kathard, principal psychologist at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, says it is not harmful for parents to have help.
"The pro is naturally that the parents are less overwhelmed with everything else they are trying to do. The child is taken care of and the homework is done. Children learn how to be more independent from their parents," she says.
"But every person has only so much energy. Parents who don't get the balance right usually have the bigger fallout. Children tend to feel rejected or abandoned and perceive that the parent prioritises work over them.
"Parents need to have the time, patience and empathy to engage with their child. When they are having a bad day or being overwhelmed, parents need to be able to contain the child's emotions, rather than react to them."
DO YOU HAVE 45 MINUTES?
Sumayyah Khan, a Cape Town clinical psychologist who specialises in family and child therapy, says: "The ability to develop in a healthy way, form relationships, build self-esteem and succeed is hugely affected by the quality of a child's care. Receiving that primary care directly from parents is the most valuable."
Khan says grandparents and caregivers with adequate "training and boundaries" are a good option for childcare, but after-hours is crucial, too.
"Parents need to do their utmost to ensure when they get home that there is at least 45 minutes to an hour spent conversing with their children. Quality time, bedtime reading, checking homework, checking that chores have been done ... showing their children that their lives matter to them and that they are cared for and valued."
When this interaction does not happen, children do not develop emotion-sharing relationships with their parents, who they need the most for love and acknowledgement, says Khan.
Lack of real intimacy can cause real problems. "The inability to emotionally self-regulate is classic narcissistic disorder," says Laing. "The way to develop the self is to learn from and form bonds with others."
Society is quick to blame parents for problem children, which is not always fair, but their role must be examined, says Laing.
"As a psychologist, I get so angry when parents dump their children in therapy without acknowledging their role. Parenting is not just creating children, it is actively nurturing on all levels."
Laing says empathic conversations are the start.
"Realistically, parents have to go out and earn money, and that is OK as long as it is explained to the child and the care is adequate. But there is an evacuation of thinking sometimes. How does the child feel about it? What are the various anxiety disorders? Why is a six-year-old in Limpopo committing suicide? There is nothing internal to hold on to, which is the basic role of parenting, to create feelings of worth."
Laing says parents must be prepared for messes - tangible and emotional ones.
"Sure, you can get a domestic worker and she can deal with it. The struggle is to help parents sit with the uncomfortable, tolerate the dirt and mess. Emotions are not easy. Be OK with the 'mess'. Tolerate the 14-year-old who falls apart because they have had a break-up with their boyfriend. Feel devastated, identify and deal with them and their feelings."