Nowhere to hide : an exploration of adolescent school children's fears and anxieties in their communities.
In terms of section 28 of the South African Bill of Rights (Constitution, 1996) all children have the right to be cared for and to be protected from harm, including the right not be maltreated, neglected, abused or degraded. Despite this, children living in this country have been found to be "scared everywhere" - in their homes, at school and in their communities. Violence against children is reported as being ubiquitous and beatings and injury are common. Children are also affected by death, disease, violence and injuries in various other ways resulting in fears that are beyond the normal, imaginary ones of an ideal childhood. These myriad sources of fear and a clear link between childhood exposure to adversity and adverse health and social development, necessitates looking broadly at the full range of experiences that can bring distress to children. The purpose of this study was to explore and understand, from a child-centred perspective, what adolescent children in South Africa are most afraid of, at what level their fears are experienced and what children believe could happen to make them feel safer. As part of a broader project this was conducted across three domains: the family, school and community; all of which are regarded as sources of vulnerability for children. The study was theoretically based on an ecological systems perspective so that the complexity of children’s fears could be considered in interaction with the individual’s environment. The specific focus in this study was on the experience of children’s fears in their neighbourhood or community. Study findings indicate that exposure of children to community-based violence in South Africa is extremely high with clear links having been found between exposure to community violence and adversity to an array of distress symptoms. This was a quantitative exploratory study designed to obtain baseline information directly from adolescents so that fear, within a community setting, could be better understood and conceptualised in a South African context. An inductive approach was used and open-ended questionnaires with a rating scale were administered to a sample of 312 adolescent school children in the North West Province. Data from the open-ended questions were coded and analysed using systematic content analysis. The free-option method used in this study was discussed and compared with previous studies using fear survey schedules, in support of literature which indicates that different results are obtained depending on the type of assessment used. Common fears are discussed and conceptualised in terms of Hobfoll’s (1998) Conservation of Resources Theory in an attempt to broaden the conceptualisation of fear and understand child fears in terms of resources that are valued by children who will experience fear or anxiety when those valued resources are threatened. Findings indicated a high level of fear in relation to interpersonal violence and fears affecting the survival of participants. These are discussed in light of research findings relating to the high exposure of children to violence in South African communities and other forms of adversity impacting on South African children in their environments. Solutions proposed by children provided a clear indication of the need for more safety and security within communities, and the need for community involvement with issues relating to child fears. Implications of the study are discussed together with recommendations for further study in support of an ecological perspective looking at all levels of a child’s experience.
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