Mental Health

How to help your child cope with trauma caused by the recent unrest

Children need not have been directly affected by the violence and looting in parts of the SA for them to be traumatised or experience heightened anxiety because of it, says a child psychiatrist

22 July 2021 - 12:59 By sanet oberholzer
If your child is feeling anxious, encourage them to talk about it and acknowledge that it's normal to be scared, concerned or upset, recommends Dr Anusha Lachman. Stock image.
If your child is feeling anxious, encourage them to talk about it and acknowledge that it's normal to be scared, concerned or upset, recommends Dr Anusha Lachman. Stock image.
Image: 123RF/michaeljung

The past few weeks have been traumatic for South Africans, from bearing witness to looting and violence, to dealing with the fallout that will have an impact on many people for months, if not years, to come.

Through it all, it is important to remember that these kinds of events not only affect adults but could impact children as well. The South African Society of Psychiatrists (Sasop) has warned that recent events could lead to an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children.

According to Dr Anusha Lachman, child psychiatrist and Sasop board member, children are highly susceptible to fear and feeling overwhelmed. They pick up on traumatising situations through observing adult responses and conversations, which means parents and caregivers have an important role to play when it comes to helping children deal with uncertain and scary situations.

“Caregivers ... are meant to buffer and scaffold children and adolescents — filtering news and supporting children to prevent further traumatisation. This is challenging if parents are themselves traumatised, however there needs to be an awareness that children need to be restricted from controllable exposures such as the news and social media,” says Lachman.

“As many parents continue to talk, share and express distress about that which is out of their control, there still must be an active attempt to prevent children from unnecessarily being traumatised.”

PTSD is caused by traumatic events and can manifest during, immediately after, or a few months after being exposed to the trauma.

“It’s important to note that children do not have to be directly involved in the events for them to be traumatised and that heightened anxiety is not only limited to those children physically exposed to the violence and disruption,” says Lachman.

She adds that PTSD can be the result of something happening to a child or to someone close to them, or even because they were exposed to traumatising events through conversations, news or social media.

“They may relive these events, even if they were not directly involved, as a result of repeated exposure to reminders on television, adults talking about the situation or via social media,” says Lachman.

Symptoms of PTSD may include nightmares, disrupted sleep, nervousness, anxiety, depression, clinginess, trouble focusing, worrying about safety or death, aggression, being jittery, feeling grouchy and a reluctance to leave the house.

It can also lead to regressive behaviours such as baby-like behaviour or bedwetting and may even manifest physically as stomach aches or headaches.

Lachman offers a few tips for parents who want to prevent their children from potentially experiencing PTSD:

  1. Admit what happened and acknowledge that it is normal to be scared, concerned or upset and encourage your child to express how they are feeling.
  2. Do not pretend that what they’ve experienced is normal but focus on positive aspects, such as how communities have rallied together to clean up and assist one another afterwards.
  3. Children’s routines are already disrupted from lockdowns and school closures, so try to provide structure. Schedule regular indoor activities such as arts and crafts, games, watching movies or baking together.
  4. Make sure your child feels they can also help. Let them join you in assisting with cleanups, collecting food or donations or creating messages of support.
  5. If either you or your children start experiencing PTSD symptoms, seek professional help, for example from The South African Depression & Anxiety Group or a psychologist.