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Youth Day 2019

By Tessa Abramovitz - Educational Psychologist

It is 43 years since the youth of Soweto took to the streets in the 1976 Soweto Youth Uprising in what today is commemorated as Youth Day. This was a day when High School students mobilized themselves and marched peacefully to demonstrate and protest against the Apartheid governments oppressive directive that the language of Afrikaans alongside English was to be made compulsory as a medium of instruction in schools. Many young people lost their lives in the struggle against Apartheid and the education system. Their struggles paved the way for the freedom we celebrate today.

And yet, 43 years on, there is a marked increase in violent incidents involving children. The recent death of a learner stabbed to death by another learner outside a high school, ongoing gangsterism, violence in schools, drug abuse, child abuse, and neglect are but some of the many incidents occurring on a daily basis in South Africa. These incidents combined with increasing levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide in our youth are signs of a society where the best interests of our children are not the priority.

There are many issues that affect young people today – an education system that is still not fair and equal, high unemployment levels, poverty, violence, abuse, exposure to social media, pornography and high levels of stress. The list goes on. A critical threat to young people’s future is that of climate change – our youth are facing a crisis caused by the destruction of our environment.

How do we as parents, teachers, and professionals support young people as they navigate this time in their lives and the challenges faced?

We need to understand and remember that young people are born good, powerful and intelligent. They are naturally curious, eager to learn, playful, energetic and able to have close and co-operative relationships with each other. They can think and have good ideas. They know how the world should be and can be powerful leaders.

Young people may not always feel or act in this way, but inherently, they have these qualities. One can ask, what happens to make them lose these qualities? Life happens. Young people get hurt from a very young age – they get hurt physically and emotionally. They are hurt by witnessing other people being hurt.

Layers and layers of hurt cover the inherent qualities of young people. And as they grow up, each incident of hurt leaves them feeling less connected, less joyful, playful, eager to learn, excited about the life ahead, less able to think and act powerfully. Layers of hurtful experiences lead to humiliation, discouragement, isolation, hopelessness and powerlessness – which in turn often gets turned against themselves (feeling bad about oneself, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression) or turned against others (bullying, peer pressure and violence).

What do young people need to be able to retain or reclaim their inherent qualities?

From birth, young people are hardwired for connections to adults who can think well about them. An adult who could listen, without judgement, criticism and blame. Someone who could be there for them. Someone who could stay and listen and not get scared of the young one’s fullest expression of emotions. In this trusting space with an adult paying full attention, a young person experiencing any kind of hurt, would show their feelings – they would show their sadness, pain, anger or fear. And if an adult could be there with them as they expressed themselves, the tears, fears and tantrums would be expressed, and the young one through the process would be able to reconnect to their inherent selves, to their joyfulness, playfulness and ability to think.

It is not always easy for us as adults to listen fully and be there fully for our young ones. Most of us never received this kind of connection and attention, and so it becomes hard for us to really be there for our young ones. Who listened to us when we were growing up? Who payed attention to us? Who treated us with the full respect we deserved? We all have our own layers of hurt that inhibit us from reaching our true potential, from allowing our inherent qualities to shine.

And so, the journey of connecting and listening well to our young ones and giving them a head start in life, involves us needing a space where we are listened to about our childhoods and personal life experiences. This process will allow us to reclaim our own ability to think clearly, our joyfulness, playfulness, hopefulness, creativity and connectedness to our children, each other and the world around us.

On this youth day, let us remember that every young person deserves to be treated with complete respect.

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