Emotional emptiness makes children more vulnerable to societal ills as they grow up. This is not just a personal observation I’ve made in my years working with children, youth and adults in the life skills development arena; it has also been researched and proven in numerous studies.

After the 16 Days of Activism against Women and Children Abuse – although, like most, I believe we should be focused on this issue 365 days a year – I felt the need to examine the domino effect of emotional poverty on young girls and the women they become.

In many societies we find young girls chasing men, money and the lifestyles they desire at the expense of their innocence. In so doing, they subconsciously become victims of their circumstances and the young men they grow up with. These men often develop aggressive, narcissistic, misogynistic personalities and behaviours, to the detriment of the girls and women in their lives.

When we trace the roots of these issues in our society, we often find the home environment, family structures and poverty to be the main causes of emotional and socio-economic deprivation.

Relationship and emotional health expert, Dr Jonice Webb, describes emotional emptiness or numbness as the general sense that “something is missing inside of oneself; a feeling of disconnection from oneself and others.”

All these major causes of emotional poverty begin in the home. When last did you hear a parent shouting at his/her child and losing emotional control – “Are you stupid, my poor girl?” – or shutting down the expression of emotion by a boy –  “Come on, boys don’t cry. Don’t be a sissy!”

There are three major causes of emotional emptiness that children can face during their most vital years of development and personality growth. These are childhood emotional neglect, active emotional invalidation, or harsh and shallow parenting. It doesn’t take much to figure out what might happen if, as a child, your emotions are treated as irrelevant or unimportant. Or – arguably worse – if you are punished for showing any emotion at all. Many parenting styles perpetuate victimisation of a child in one way or another. All of these factors are likely to lead to the emotional void that these children eventually experience in their adult lives on a day-to-day basis.

Having read a large amount of research and seen first-hand the results of emotional poverty in the communities where I work with Valued Citizens Initiative – as well as in society in general – I have no doubt that family plays a vital role in the way we raise the new generation, including tomorrow’s leaders. South Africa has several unique circumstances that affect the structure and socio-economic situations of families. These include the migrant labour system inherited from apartheid, which undermined the African family and created the perfect conditions for disintegration; poverty; and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which places an added burden on our children.

The Green Paper on South African Families emphasises the need to promote family life and strengthen families so that they can deal with conflict, stress and crisis more effectively. This will help them to carry out their parental responsibilities – including the provision of a nurturing environment where traditions, rules and discipline are fostered and where children feel safe, cared for and appreciated.

With all that we know, and all the stories of endurance of abusive situations – stories of harassment, sexism and transactional relationships that our girls find themselves getting into – we should be asking ourselves whether we have done enough as civil society in the human rights and life skills space, to break the cycle of emotionally broken people raising emotionally empty children?

We should be asking ourselves, what have we done to our girls, our women, the very pillars of our communities? And how are we going to break this cycle of emotional neglect within households, and the resultant yearning for some semblance of the affection that these girls and women have been denied at home? How can we ensure they are not driven to seek affection in the wrong places or from the wrong people?

One of our programmes at Valued Citizens Initiative, iCHOOSE Responsible Parenting, teaches family members how to nurture, love and support children so that they may grow into responsible adults who understand their family crests, live their families’ values and develop healthy relationships.

We believe it starts with a few simple principles that lead to what we call a “full love-tank”. These principles include showing respect to learn together; engaging children in conversations about your family life; sitting together and talking about what matters to you and your child; having fun to create beautiful memories; playing together, cooking together, and doing things that make you smile and laugh!

So, encourage your children to do their best. Make sure that everything you say is true and honest. Always say what you mean. Love your children for who they are and not what you may have wanted them to be.

There is more than one right and there is more than one wrong. As parents, we cannot limit ourselves to seeing the world in two colours.

We encourage family members to keep showing love so that everyone’s love-tank is always full. LOVE is a verb, a DOING word. It means you must not just tell your child “I love you”, but also show it through your actions.

Working with families in their homes we aim to reset the foundations of family structure, which makes it easier and more comfortable to express emotions and helps parents to be more affectionate, loving and involved.

Taking it a step further, we need to encourage those women who have experienced the darker sides of life to keep telling their stories as a way of shining a light for those who are too afraid to speak up.

As communities, society and family members, we need to empower girls from an early age in ways that will make them less vulnerable when they find themselves in precarious situations. We need to give them the tools they need to realise and harness their true potential as individuals.

The strong woman narrative was born from women who endure the toughest situations imaginable and still come out stronger and better on the other side. In a sense, it is a narrative we should continue to encourage, specifically from the perspective of raising strong women who are confident and self-aware enough to be drivers of their own lives and not simply victims of circumstances.

Carole Podetti Ngono is the founder and managing director of Valued Citizens Initiative, an NGO founded in 2001 that focuses on developing citizenship education and essential life skills in public schools and communities

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