St John's College

Loadshedding could hardly have been better designed to impact our mental well-being. It is unpredictable, beyond our control, consequential, and unlikely to end soon. These factors create a recipe for stress and impacts our emotional, physical and mental health.

Much of our anxiety stems from situations or experiences where our sense of control is removed. Loadshedding’s unpredictability makes planning work, meals, and trips difficult. It knocks out traffic lights and leaves us disconnected at the most inopportune times. It heightens our feelings of frustration and exacerbates our resentments.

Our children, too, suffer the burden of loadshedding. There are direct effects: their ability to learn has been impacted. They may battle to stick to study and homework timetables when batteries die, and Wi-Fi or cell tower connections are lost. They may have to study by candlelight. Younger children might be scared of the dark, and everyone becomes more fearful when streetlights and alarms don’t work.

There is another indirect impact on children. Children are very good at picking up on the emotional state of those around them. If we are stressed, running around trying to cope with the hurdles that loadshedding presents, children may pick up on that tension.

In our default need to protect our children from as much hardship as we can, we don’t always explain to them why we, as adults, are feeling or acting in a particular way. We don’t always communicate why we feel stressed. The challenge this creates is that our children are then left without a context for our emotions, potentially leading them to believe they are, in part, to blame for our frustration. This increases their anxiety and confusion.

What can we do to lessen their burden? In a word, communicate. Be open and honest. Tell them you are stressed but that they are not to blame. Making it explicit gives them context and allows them to just be children and not carry our emotional baggage. Don’t believe you need to shut them out of what we believe to be “adult concerns”. Our concerns spread regardless. Our default is to protect our children but to do that as they get older, we need to allow them to come to their own understanding.

Of course, there’s a fine line between sharing and oversharing, and you’ll need to be sensitive to your child’s needs to find that line. We want to communicate to address their concerns, not add to them. This is a process where we need to take our cues from them. Every child will react differently and will understand their situation uniquely. The more verbal a child is, the more we tend to assume that they know what we’re feeling or the emotional climate of an environment. Verbal maturity and emotional maturity don’t always correlate. Children can say something without having the emotional context behind it.

As adults and parents, our default is to want to provide a fix, a solution, an answer. But sometimes there isn’t one, and that’s also something children have to learn. Knowing that it’s okay to be uncomfortable, to be nervous, to be stressed and making that explicit often calms the situation on its own. It doesn’t fix the problem, but it contextualises it, which allows for understanding.

Another way we can help is by acknowledging the burdens we ourselves carry and trying to ease them. Take whatever practical steps you can to alleviate the effect of loadshedding. Try and plan for the unexpected. And spare a thought for the person sitting next to you in traffic. It’s tempting to believe that life’s difficulties solely afflict us, but we really are all in this together. The struggles we endure can unite us and strengthen us if we approach them from a place of compassion and understanding.

We sometimes forget that childhood can be a uniquely stressful time. Children can feel a lot of pressure to perform – from parents, teachers, or coaches. Even if this expectation is only a perception, it can be a lot for a young person to bear. Loadshedding has the potential to compound this stress. Don’t take a child’s experience for granted, and don’t imagine they are taking yours for granted, either. Talk to them, and learn how to respond to the challenges of loadshedding together.

Hugo Meirim is a clinical psychologist at St John’s College.