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Dear parents: How to allow yourself and your children to cope with collective trauma

In light of the occurrences in the last few weeks in South Africa, in addition to coping with a third wave of COVID, I think a lot of South Africans are feeling exhausted!

We tend to underestimate the emotional impact of such events and the collective trauma it brings about not only for adults but for children as well.

What is collective trauma?

You may be asking yourself the question of what collective trauma is and have I actually been affected? Well, let’s first start off with what the term collective trauma means - it refers to the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that affect entire groups of people or society at large. Queue the COVID pandemic plus mass lootings and riots across South Africa. This creates a chronically stressed external environment which individuals of all ages are constantly processing and responding to.

Although the trauma is experienced collectively, the impact it has may differ from person to person as everyone has their own unique way of processing the demands it may cause. It can bring up feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, fear, anger and grief, as well as worry, tearfulness, fatigue, a loss of a sense of safety, trouble concentrating or just feeling like have you gone into survival mode.

How does this affect children?

Children are constantly watching and learning from their parents, so the manner in which you cope, is how they will. Let’s firstly acknowledge the impact that all that is going on has on a parent – IT’S OKAY TO NOT BE FEELING OKAY.

Parents have been juggling a more than usual heavy load since the lockdown in March 2020. Between balancing stressful job demands or alternatively salary cuts or retrenchments, dealing with COVID-related grief, to adjusting to a new way of working and interacting online, to assisting kids with online schooling and homework, household duties, whilst fulfilling the role of spouse, sibling or friend, all amongst a great deal of uncertainty and feelings of a lack of physical safety. This is a lot!

So, take a deep breath and acknowledge this impact and how it has left you feeling. Second, practice some self-compassion and know that you are doing the best that you can!

We unfortunately cannot control adverse experiences that life may unfortunately throw at us, but we can however identify and notice how it has impacted on us or even changed us and look at ways to cope and manage going forward. Be mindful of your own reactions and how you speak and communicate about all that is going on.

How to reduce the impact of collective trauma?

As children and teens' brains are still developing, they are more vulnerable to the impact of stress caused by trauma. So, it is so important to try and look at ways to manage this.

  1. With all the uncertainty we are experiencing, creating a routine from yourself and your family can be so beneficial and create a sense of stability.

  2. Focus on lifestyle factors such as exercising, preparing, and eating healthy meals and maintaining good sleep routines.

  3. Create a safe space where you and your children can safely express what you are feeling and thinking.

  4. Focus on labelling and validating feelings, for example, feeling frustrated and scared.

  5. Encourage young children to draw or write how they are feeling if they struggle with words.

  6. Teenagers can be encouraged to express their emotions through journaling, which has been shown to help manage stress.

  7. Explore other coping mechanisms such as breathing and mindfulness exercises (just search on Youtube) which can be calming for the nervous system.

  8. Or just simply play some music and dance! Allowing your body to release some of the built-up tension.

  9. Another factor that we have considerably control over, is how much exposure we have to news, circulating videos and social media. So, limit this for yourself and family and make sure that sources you are using are reliable and valid.

  10. Try maintaining social connection, which is so challenging with current lockdown restrictions. But this is where our social devices can really be helpful – connecting with family or friends via WhatsApp messages or video calls, can really normalize how you are feeling and be a way of you having an outlet to express yourself and have support, so that you can fully do the same for your children. Look at ways that you as a family can connect and do something fun within the home, such as playing a boardgame.

  11. Even look at spending time outdoors or out in nature (which is luckily permitted during current lockdown restrictions). Being outdoors can be beneficial in reducing levels of not only stress, but depression and anxiety as well.

  12. Seek support when necessary - Reach out for additional support such as making use of mental health resources.

  13. And finally, a gentle reminder to be kind to yourself and your children in these challenging times!

Tarryn Sardinha

Clinical Psychologist

Psych Central Rivonia

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