In stressful times we need strong and responsive families

Posted on June 25, 2021


During the past 14 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused most families to experience immense stress. Families and communities have been, and continue to be exposed to changes, such as having to work from home, the closing of child care centres and home schooling. Social distancing has caused distress for families, especially for children and adolescents, given their naturally strong need for social connection.


Local news reports highlight the widespread impact of the pandemic on individuals, families, communities and the country. Through these reports and our interactions with others we become aware of the substantial challenges experienced by families, such as the fear of or actual loss of employment and income, food insecurity and dependency on social grants, the loss of a family member—who could be the breadwinner—and the ever-present risk of COVID-19 infection. Healthy families are known to be the cornerstone of healthy societies, but the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a heavy burden on South African families.


Recent studies in the United States found that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe effect on parents’ mental health and children’s behavioural and emotional well-being. In South Africa, these effects can be seen in the higher prevalence of family violence and violence against girls and women, which has been a prominent theme in the local media and has been linked to the economic, social and emotional stressors caused by the pandemic. One might even argue that the high prevalence of bullying at schools, as reported in the media and seen on social media, may somehow be connected to stressors associated with the pandemic.


The abovementioned studies found that families who care for children generally experienced higher levels of distress than those without children. In addition to managing their own stressors, parents must do their best to meet their children’s physical, emotional, social and educational needs. When parents or caregivers struggle with this role, children are likely to show higher levels of distress at home, at school and in the community. Parents who try to cope with their own stress may overlook signs of distress in their children. Sustained high stress levels can result in toxic stress—a form of severe stress that, if not managed, can negatively influence children’s development, learning and health.


The family is the primary social setting in which both adults and children find nurturance and care. Strong, responsive families buffer family members against the impact of stressors, whether caused by a pandemic, a disaster, or the effects of poverty. Social workers, teachers and other professionals render essential services and can play a critical role in supporting and strengthening families, especially at this point in our country’s history. Attempts to raise awareness of the benefits of strong and responsive families and working in partnership with families to reach this goal can underpin sustainable efforts to support the well-being of families in South Africa.

It is important to note that families can develop and use their natural strengths to cope more effectively during crises, and that parents or caregivers can acquire skills and capabilities to respond to children who experience stress. Children express their emotional distress, pain and confusion verbally, but also through their behaviour, for example through anger, sleep problems, or poor academic performance. Parents and caregivers can react by either punishing, threatening, or reprimanding their children, or they can help them to develop the skills they need to manage their stress. To achieve this goal, it is crucial to develop parents’ and caregivers’ understanding of children’s stress-related behaviour and how they can respond in a positive way to children’s emotions and behaviour by focusing on their abilities, rather than on problems and deficiencies.


The most important buffer against toxic stress and challenging behaviour during childhood is the availability of one significant adult on whom the young person can depend—a person who cares unconditionally, who will protect them and respond to their needs. This person can be a parent, grandparent, teacher, social worker or a child and youth care worker. By promoting this idea, the principle of ‘the power of one’ could be implemented throughout South Africa to help every child to cope during difficult times.


Parents and caregivers who are responsive to children’s emotions and behaviour are better able to protect their children against the negative effects of stressors. The Department of Social Work and Criminology at the University of Pretoria is committed to the achievement of this goal through the development of a series of courses on responsive practice, which will be offered to persons from various professions who work with families and children.



- Author Dr Liana le Roux, Senior Lecturer and Ms Lesley du Toit

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