Listen to your children




Not a day passes when we do not hear on the radio or read in newspapers or on social media about brutal killings in the Cape Flats, with headlines declaring that Cape Town is one of the most violent cities in the world.

We have clearly lost the battle against criminals when worshippers are robbed in a church in the middle of a service.

What defence do the priest and his congregants have against a bunch of ruthless armed thugs who have lost their souls?

I was shocked when a six-year-old boy was brought to me with a history of severe headaches.

The night before, his headache was so intense that he asked his father to take his head off. He cried the whole night through in front of his helpless parents. The usual pain syrup did nothing to alleviate his agony.

The parents were worried that their son was suffering from a serious brain problem and wanted a scan.

In my rooms, the child looked well and pleasant and displayed no signs to warrant a scan.

I decided to tactfully look for an underlying psychological cause for his headaches.

After a short history, the little boy tearfully mentioned that whenever he heard gunshots and his father went out he worried that his dad was being shot and would never return.

On that previous night, his father had gone out to buy car parts and the little boy heard gunshots. He panicked and developed a severe tension headache, fearing that his dad had been killed by the gangs.

Examination of his muscles revealed they were taut and tender.

I have treated tension headaches in several adults but this was the first time I had to treat such a young person for this complaint.

I counselled him because pain relievers were not going to solve the boy’s pain or allay his well-founded fears. I was pleased to hear that the he slept well that night after his session with me.

But all I could do was to try to reassure him, knowing that the violence is not going to disappear anytime soon.

This boy’s story is merely the tip of the iceberg. I am sure there must be thousands of children who suffer from headaches, depression and anxiety as a result of the unbridled violence in the country.

Children do not have a way of expressing their innermost fears. These fears affect their concentration and behaviour at home and in class. They present as physical symptoms.

It is not uncommon to hear parents label their children as naughty or seeking attention when they continuously complain about minor symptoms or start acting up.

But many children are often afraid to speak in front of their parents, fearing that they might be reprimanded.

Parent need to be more sensitive to the issues affecting their children, reach out to them and listen with empathy to their fears to help them deal with their pain. They must not wait for something serious to happen to them before we take them seriously.

A counsellor or therapist, no matter how highly qualified, means little to a child. Children do not speak easily to anyone about how they feel or what’s bothering them unless they are asked by someone whom they trust. Children see adults as strangers and require very gentle handling to gain their confidence before they speak openly to them.

I have come across a number of children who presented with anxiety, depression non-specific symptoms and who refused to go to school for a variety of reasons.

Most of the time children are either being bullied at school, are afraid of a very strict teacher or violence at home.

It is quite likely that many young people turn to cannabis or other substances as an escape from the daily trauma that they are exposed to in their neighbourhoods.

The sight of people being shot, stabbed and robbed right in front of them must have a detrimental effect. Many must be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

We need to look at safe playing places for children to play sports. Active participation in sports is the best non-drug measure to combat anxiety and depression, not just for children but for anyone.

The government should make a concerted effort to train lay counsellors to counsel children in schools and to identify children in need of intensive psychological counselling because we won’t have enough psychologists to cover all the schools in the country.

The violence in our country will remain with us for a long time to come so we have a duty to protect our children from its effects on their young minds and lives.

Dr Ellapen Rapiti is a family physician, specialising in child and mental health and addiction counselling

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Ellapen Rapiti
Ellapen Rapiti

Dr Ellapen Rapiti is a family physician, specialising in child and mental health and addiction counselling.

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