The Impact of Continuous Exposure to Trauma and Violence on School Learners

In 2021, CSVR embarked on a project that focuses on Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV), sometimes referred to as the ‘Shadow Pandemic’ in South Africa. Under this project one of our interventions has been working with young people in schools to raise awareness and provide psychoeducation on SGBV. To date we have conducted dialogues with youth from high schools in Alexandra township, Inner City Johannesburg, and Orange Farm – areas which have been identified as GBV hotspots according to recent reports[1]. Through our engagement, it was noted that continuous traumatic stress environments, characterized by high unemployment, poverty, exposure to femicide and crime contribute to SGBV in some communities.

Through dialogues the following perspectives were captured by learners:

One learner expressed that living in a home of 5 children, with only one parent employed, was financially burdening to the parent. The stress that comes with being the sole breadwinner and not knowing how to cope with financial expectations may lead to fears and frustrations, which manifest in the form of violence. In some situations, parents would become abusive (verbally and emotionally) to the children or spouse. This was further exacerbated by adopting unhealthy coping strategies to manage the stress – such as alcohol consumption – to silence the pressure, which in turn contributed to more aggressive behavior. It was noted that learners made meaning of this type of behavior based on the above reasoning i.e. the parent or caregiver is stressed.

This rationalization or meaning making, reflects learners’ socialization, as many learners become witnesses of the abuse and the victims of the hostile home environment. They are also prone to become trauma carriers in their communities. The schools that CSVR practitioners engaged with also reported high rates of bullying; drug abuse; sexual harassment among learners; teenage pregnancy; low pass rates in school; and learners becoming perpetrators of GBV, as they may perceive their violent responses as normal and accepted behavior.

It was also discussed that poverty and unemployment also contribute to ‘hustling’ to make sure there is food in the home. This was reported by female learners who reflected on single mothers having to have more than one romantic partner and pooling the money she gets from them to meet the basic needs of the home. They also spoke of older sisters engaging in sex work to get an income. Learners’ vigilance in what is happening in their community was noted, as they could identify the hotspots where ‘things went down’. It was also noted that female learners themselves were dating older men and had experienced physical abuse and emotional manipulation. This replicates what they have been exposed to within their own homes and alludes to the perception that abuse in a relationship is normal.

Exposure to violence in early childhood or adolescence has the potential to shape how learners perceive the world, others, and the self. Especially when that exposure to violence is within the setting of the family or an intimate partner relationship. It begins (consciously or unconsciously) to inform what we see as appropriate and inappropriate behaviors in a relationship. When exposed to domestic or intimate partner violence as a norm, that line can become blurred. For example, drawing on Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Development Model[2], during adolescence, individuals go through the developmental stage identity formation versus identity confusion, as they are discovering themselves, who they are etc. A relationship at this time that exposes them to intimate partner violence may impact on that development process in a negative way and can contribute to them forming unhealthy attachment styles in relationships. In addition, if the environment they find themselves in is one that does not offer the support they need during early childhood, it limits the opportunities that exist for developing trust, autonomy and initiative which are important characteristics for developing a sense of identity and coping with the demands of the external world[3].

Learners who have been directly or indirectly exposed to continuous violence and trauma may experience the following:

  • Feelings of anxiety, constantly being in a state of fear and worry of everyday events and potential events that might occur.
  • May present with symptoms of depression: reported attempts of suicide; issues of concentration; lack of interest in participation in recreational activities such as sports;  irritability and anger; insomnia and low self-esteem.
  • Behavioral difficulties- displays of aggressive behavior, reports of fighting with other learners especially at school, engage in bullying, and joining gangs that perpetuate violence at school and in the community. It can be understood that learners struggle with emotional regulation and develop unhealthy methods of expressing anger as they may not know how to cope with the difficult circumstances in their homes.
  • Risky sexual behavior which are likely to get them in trouble with the law, i.e., learners who are alleged to have sexually coerced, harassed or assaulted other leaners at school.
  • Drug abuse is another significant issue which seems to be a ‘coping mechanism’ that learners may engage in to escape their realities. Report that they would smoke weed/dagga because it makes them forget about the issues at home and make them feel happy. This is particularly dangerous because substance abuse at an early age has health implications such as developing kidney and respiratory issues, heart disease etc. which are often under looked.

However, like adults, learners can recover from their trauma with trauma informed care, these are individually, family and community structured interventions to identify and understand the causes of violence, acknowledge the impact and inform responses to the mental health and psychosocial needs. A school as a social institution plays a role in socialization and creating learning opportunities for learners, building the foundation for learner’s future in a way that shapes their mindset on life experiences. It is therefore essential that safety is ensured in the schools and the National School Safety Framework provides a systematic approach that helps us understand the role of each member of the school body in creating and maintaining safe school environment. It is an essential and useful guideline that can be reviewed and adapted to make it trauma-informed and to address the issues of violence in schools. Critical role players such as the Department of Education, Department of Social Development, Department of Health, NGOs, etc. could participate in the process and contribute to creating safe and violent free communities, and working in conjunction with Youth Initiatives, they can provide key recommendations based on their expertise. When there is an awareness of an area of concern there is opportunity to raise funds and prioritize the needs of young people who often are not adequately equipped to manage life’s psychosocial stressors and develop a safe quality of life.

Written by: Zanele Zondo (MHPSS practitioner) and Sumaiya Mohamed (MHPSS Specialist)

[1] Maphanga, C. (2022, Sept 22). Cele reveals SA’s top 30 hotspots. News24. Retrieved from Cele reveals SA’s top 30 GBV hotspots | News24

[2] Rosenthal, D. A., Gurney, R. M., & Moore, S. M. (1981). From trust on intimacy: A new inventory for examining Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Journal of Youth and Adolescence10(6), 525-537.

[3] Makhubela, M. S. (2012). Exposure to Domestic Violence and Identity Development among Adolescent University Students in South Africa. Psychological Reports, 110(3), 791–800.

Photo Cred: Mwesigwa Joel


Published by CSVR Trauma Clinic

This blog represents thoughts of therapist working within the CSVR Trauma Clinic. The focus is on understanding the drivers and impact of violence on individuals, families and communities to work towards violence prevention and the building of peaceful societies

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