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Warning signs of childhood violence and what can be done to reduce the risks

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With several cases of violent incidents being reported at South African schools during the first half of 2019, concerns have been raised that the youth are becoming increasingly aggressive.  Among the violent cases were two pupils who were seriously injured at Lentegeur High School in February, after two fellow schoolmates allegedly stabbed them on the premise.  On the same day, a 14-year-old boy was stabbed with a scissor by a fellow pupil in Pietermaritzburg. At the time, ER24 spokesperson Russel Meiring said that the boy sustained stab wounds to his arm, shoulder and back.

Also in February, a brawl involving some 1 200 students from various high schools in and around Claremont, resulted in five stab injuries.
A 15-year-old pupil was also implicated in an armed robbery at Sea Point High School, where a teacher was wounded and 50 cellphones were stolen.

In Johannesburg, a grade eight pupil was stabbed to death at Forest High School at the beginning of June. A Nineteen-year-old student was accused of stabbing three boys in an alleged school gang fight. A grade 11 and grade nine pupil were stabbed at Indwe Secondary School in Mossel Bay within two weeks of the same month.

In KwaZulu-Natal, an educator at Masuku Primary School was shot dead on the school premises.

Questions have arisen as to why there has been a sharp increase in violence in schools and amongst learners. There are concerns that gangs have been recruiting young students to become drug peddlers, thieves and even perpetrators of gang activities. This is of particular relevance on the Cape Flats in areas such as Manenberg, Bonteheuwel, Lavender Hill and Hanover Park to name a few, where gangsterism is rife.

Following the murder of the teacher at Masuku Primary School, the Educators’ Union of South Africa called for teachers to be allowed to bring guns to school to protect themselves.

This was however rejected by the Department of Basic Education, who deemed the call “irresponsible, reckless and dangerous” as it risks escalating violence.

This, the Department said, would create further distress among teachers, learners and communities.

VOC spoke to specialist psychiatrist Dr Marshinee Naidoo, who gave advice on how to recognise when violent behaviour can indicate a significant problem. Naidoo explained that “tantrums” in young children are common.

“Most kids will argue, be uncooperative and disobey authority every now and then. Usually, the typical temper tantrum happens when the child is frustrated and its usually around routine activities like bath time or bed-time.”
It is however not typical when it is an intense, draining outburst that comes out of nowhere.

When is the behaviour a problem?

Naidoo said tantrums may not be normal when a child:
• displays continued hostility toward people being the caregiver, family, friends,
• cannot calm themselves down.
• gets deeply angry
• throws “tantrums” which are intense enough to make them exhausted.
• is excessively irritable
• is impulsive
• exhibits intimidating or bullying behaviour at school
• tries to harm (themselves) like scratching, biting, head banging.
• displays this behaviour frequently
Other concerning factors include:
• Use of drugs and alcohol
• Gang affiliation
• Access and use of firearms
• Threatening (people) with violence or
• destruction of property
• Suicidal thoughts which manifest into plans and attempts

What contributes to violence amongst youth?

Nurturing youth while they are at a young age could be the key to avoiding destructive behaviour when they enter early adulthood. Naidoo explained that there could be an underlying medical problem.

“There good be genetic disposition where psychological or psychiatric conditions play a role. Anxiety disorders in children often displays as aggression. Even a child that received love and hugs, maybe has some reason for underlying anxiety. That could stem from past exposure to abuse, sometimes not in the home but at school or elsewhere. Substance use can also contribute in that way.”

Being predisposed to violent, immoral behaviour further impacts the well-being of the child’s mental stability. Vanessa Padayachee of the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) meanwhile refuted suggestions made earlier this year, to take punitive measures against minors and urged more restorative solutions.

“Punishing them by putting them in environments that are more dangerous and has more negative influences won’t help anyone. We need to put them in environments where they can learn how to live in communities. We do not have centres. We seem to criminalise everything. Conflicts in the community criminalises people who get sent to prison,” Padayachee was quoted as saying.

Padayachee highlighted that living in a violent community or home, and being consistently exposed to violent behaviour, contributed to the problem.

“Also, watching violence in the media, gaming, television…how much do we know about what our children are watching?” posed Naidoo.

Another aspect which was explored by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention in early June, was to address the schooling system. Following the call for teachers to be allowed to carry guns in self-defence, the centre had strongly recommended that a holistic plan is needed, other than simply addressing school security. At the time, suggestions included increased metal detectors and police searches at schools.

Director Patrick Burton said these methods did not have the required effect in countries such as the United States.

“What works is the partnerships between the police, schools, parents and welfare and development agencies within all the spheres,” said Burton.
This sentiment was echoed by Naidoo, who noted that a collective effort is required.

“(A child is) not one person’s responsibility. As a parent; be aware of the warning signs, as a teacher be aware as well. Get (in) social workers in or (implement) more support structures. Maybe put more emphasis in life orientation at schools. With severe gang related violence in areas, having law enforcement search for drugs and weapons (could assist). Even (drug) screening, to make parents aware.”

What can I do as a parent?

Naidoo noted that recognizing when outbursts are considered to be a problem is a delicate process, because signs can easily be misinterpreted.

“A parent should be aware of early warning signs, but it becomes tricky because many of the signs overlap normal adolescent behaviour could be such as social withdrawal, isolation, feeling rejected etc. But that’s where the uncontrolled factor comes into play.”

Parents can assist by being supportive of their children. Naidoo explained that the ‘bad’ behaviour is often highlighted ‘but and the good is never seen’.

“It’s not just about labelling the child, it’s about recognising the warning signs and looking at whether there’s anything more to be concerned about.”

“Often there’s a deeper-rooted psychological aspect to the behaviour. Yes, you point out the bad behaviour but (take care) not to label the child as a ‘bad child’.”

Dr Naidoo said parents can assist by:
• educating themselves about the early warning signs
• trying to avoid the temper tantrums getting out of hand.
• Avoid situations that make the child “cranky”
• Avoid criticizing a child in public
• Praising the child for the good things they do
• Show affection through loving gestures such as hugs and compliments

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