She’s too small to think

A common phrase I hear working with parents is, ‘she’s too small to think’, ‘they’re too small to understand what’s happening’, don’t worry about them, they don’t understand’. And because they don’t understand and are perceived as lacking the ability to think and understand what is happening around them, they are fine and we don’t need to worry about them. We don’t need to worry about the time I was attacked in our home and they sat by screaming for my attacker to leave me alone. We don’t have to worry about the time they walked in on me trying to commit suicide. We don’t have to worry because they too small to think and they will be fine. This often takes me back to the way I was raised, whereby “children should be seen and not heard”. These are the ways of thinking that I carry with me based on my upbringing and they only started shifting and changing as I studied psychology and got to understand more about the internal world of a child and their development. How so much of what happens in early life shapes and forms that child’s adult life.

Over the past 3 years the CSVR Trauma Clinic has evolved to include family interventions into the work that we do, based on the impact of the trauma on families and children specifically. Witnessing the impact of trauma and poverty on a parent’s ability to be emotionally available for their child, the ability to create a holding environment for a child: one in which they can be understood, emotionally nurtured and psychologically held has become more and more of a challenge in today’s times, which has further broadened my understanding of development especially in relation to the context in which children are raised.

So now as a therapist sitting with a parent and their 2, 3,4,5,6 year old child in a room. I see curiosity in the eyes of the child as mum talks, a glance towards mum as her voice softens and a caressing of mums face as tears fall. And I wonder, what is she thinking? What are the messages she is receiving from her world and how are they understood? When her ability to think, comprehend, have a mind and the impact of her context on that mind is questioned. And how do I try and translate my understanding, that what is happening around the child is having an impact on them, especially when the parents are sitting with numerous contextual challenges and their own traumas?

Looking at the current situation beyond the family, whereby immigrant children are detained in South Africa and the United States, it seems that this lack of concern for a mind of a child, a child as a being, is not only one that is held by families that are traumatized but by societies that are traumatized and is something that fits in with the historical legacy and societal norms of how we have thought about children that continue to be perpetuated. Holding in mind the importance of early childhood development, the nurture versus nature debate comes to mind. Reflecting on our current societies, and the processes of socialization that children are being exposed to at a very young age (detained migrant children, sexually abused children, cyber bullying, violence in the home and outside the home), as well as the limited parental and societal understandings of the impact of this on the child.

So when we have parents, societies and countries that unable to hold and contain children, how does the un-held, un-contained and wounded child develop? And what impact does that have on them in their adolescent and adult life and the ways in which they can contribute to society?

And this becomes the crux of the matter. Research done by CSVR on the drivers of violence which include structural and community level factors (socio economic inequality, gender and masculinity, lack of social cohesion, alcohol and firearms) helps make sense of the reason why providing an emotionally nurturing environment for children is a challenge. These ‘drivers’ which are predominantly evident amongst the most vulnerable and marginalized of our society, have an impact on family relationships, infant development and parenting. Thus, contributing to the cyclical nature of violence. As families in poverty, have mouths to feed, basic needs to meet and emotional bonding, psychological holding, nurturance through acknowledgement has to wait. There is no choice. We have undergone trainings, workshops and sat with many perspectives in relation to family interventions and one thing that stood out was, Attachment is Everything! Early attachment can be seen as the key to understanding many of the individual, familial and societal challenges we experience today and this links strongly to the continuous perpetuation of cycles of violence.

This was further highlighted in a talk by Dr. Clinton Van Der Walt, titled, ‘Formulating violence as a response to dysregulated and distressed mental states’ at EPASSA (Educational Psychology Association of South Africa) annual conference this year, where he highlighted the importance of attachment disruptions and trauma as major contributing factors to the development of violence, as he states that, ‘dysregulated children become dysregulated adults haunted by the ghosts in the nursery’. So as generations to come are exposed to violent, un-held and uncontained environments will they continue to express violence as an appropriate response to levels of despair, inequality and disempowerment? Reflecting on our youth, we find a generation riddled with feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and despair steered to crime and interpersonal and self-violence. And a society who looks upon this generation with judgement and vitriol, further othering them and entrenching their feelings of worthlessness and inferiority. Contributing unconsciously to the cyclical process of transgenerational trauma, poverty, mental health challenges and violence.

Taking this into consideration, I ask, is enough being done at an early intervention level to prevent violence?

These concepts are spoken in length about at academic and elite levels, yet are only trickling down in small ways to a grass roots level. Why? A lot of good work is being done in the field of early child development. Non-governmental organisations such as Ububele and Seven Passes Initiative, whom work with children, families and communities highlight the importance of attachment relationships with primary caregivers as the key to emotional development and provide this through various interventions. There are prenatal and post-natal classes offered to pregnant women. However, these early methods of intervention are only accessible to the minority of the population. Therefore, with some amazing interventions out there that have been shown to help and create the change that is needed in our current society, why are there still so many challenges to implementation on a larger scale? Why is this something that has not been prioritised by government?

So no, I don’t think enough is being done at an early intervention level in relation to the prevention of violence. Why are we not investing in our youth? Why are we not investing in our children? Helping them to create a violent free society by helping them to manage their own emotions and make sense of them.

Healthy individuals contribute to health families which contribute to health societies.

Written by: Sumaiya Mohamed, Jacqui Chowles and Celeste Matross

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